Obama on Race: Process over Product

What was revealed about President Barack Obama’s outlook on racial issues as he dealt with the controversy over the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.? Interestingly, the principle view shown by the President was also highlighted by his Attorney General in a controversial speech he gave last February commemorating African American History Month.

After making unintentional remarks about the arrest of Professor Gates in his home by Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police, President Obama extended an invitation to the gentlemen for a beer at the White House–a positive gathering which occurred on July 30th. The idea it seems behind the invitation is that direct communication between parties involved in a conflict (in this case, Dr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley) and a skilled third-party facilitator (here the President of the United States), can advance mutual understanding among the participants.

Attorney General Eric Holder also underscored the dialogue theme in his noted speech about race. He said that “we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race,” and that “we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.” Participatory communication to which Mr. Holder seems to refer is an internationally applied methodology that builds more productive racial-ethnic relations through inclusive direct dialogue. The process begins with groups building trust (by sharing and acknowledging life experiences), leading to expressions of regret. Racial dialogue and reconciliation at the local level can gradually become vehicles for participants to collaboratively plan and implement their priority socio-economic and environmental initiatives.

Mr. Holder’s comment in that speech that received great (negative) attention–that we are “essentially a nation of cowards”–was directed at the reality that we as a nation commonly avoid inter-personal and -group dialogue on issues of race (and, for that matter, religion). People may not have the opportunity to participate in discussions about race, but also they may not want to in order to not feel the discomfort that can go along with conversing about how race can determine opportunities in life, for example. While recognizing it is difficult, Holder suggests that people ought to persist and talk through hard issues.

From these two incidences involving the President and the Attorney General, what can we learn about how the Obama administration might approach crux issues such as an apology from the federal government for slavery, affirmative action and reparations, and institutional racism (in the criminal justice system, the economy, health, and education) creating disproportionate levels of poverty and incarceration among African Americans particularly?

Foremost, Obama’s policies may significantly grow from inter-racial “listening” (an act often repeated by Obama)–or racial dialogue across U.S. communities. In fact, policies and programs that create constructive local dialogue about racial and ethnic experiences and partnership could be viewed by the administration as an end in itself.

This approach to managing racial issues embodies the President’s bottom-up philosophy, and could unfold in society in the following way. Understanding and relationships among racial and ethnic groups are built during inclusive local dialogue. Then, coalitions form and local racial movements composed of diverse groups spread horizontally–from one group to another and from one community to another through peers, its demonstration effect, and the ongoing training and work of facilitators. The local movements then partner and have a vertical effect–on state and national laws and policies.

For this to happen, dialogue at the community level needs to be catalyzed, facilitated, and sustained. What kinds of programs then spur on these local bottom-up processes? To start, the U.S. Department of Education could dedicate funding to compiling existing and creating new participatory dialogue activities that provide some structure to group dialogue to maximize information sharing, and build trust and partnership. A warehouse of racial dialogue tools ought to be made available on-line.

People, particularly those in a position to apply them, need to be trained in facilitating community-dialogue. Training can be given to leaders in government from the many departments who liaison with local communities; members of communities of faith with support from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; AmeriCorps and other grassroots volunteers; university students through community-building programs; and community workers from Organizing for America, the successor organization to Obama for America. Civil society organizations working on issues of racial reconciliation would be indispensible partners for their community outreach and capacity to train.

The emerging position of Obama on race does not seem as much focused on end solutions to our most challenging problems, but rather more on the process of how sustainable solutions may be found. Under Obama, then, race-related programs and policies would not be directed toward pre-determined ends, but rather reflect the consensus position derived from countless community conversations. The end for Obama, then, which utilizes magnificently his skills and identity, is to build the means by which people can come together and talk.

Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is a professor of sociology at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, and also president of the High Atlas Foundation, a non-government organization that promotes rural community development in Morocco. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect those of Al Akhawayn University and the High Atlas Foundation. Read other articles by Yossef.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on August 1st, 2009 at 2:59pm #

    The incident involving Gates and James (Jim Crow) Crowley was a clear case of ABUSE OF POLICE POWER. Crowley did nothing to diffuse the situation and Gates clearly was in his own home. Obama chose not to upset the mostly white male conservative police union. This is a huge reactionary force that needs to be wedge and a “conversation” will not wedge these folks. What they want is submissiveness and are all about repression. Yet another clear example of Police State of America.

    How citizens confront PS of A is the conversation that is needed.

  2. Hue Longer said on August 1st, 2009 at 3:29pm #


    This is an interesting way to explain what simply appears to be a president doing his best to cover up for a brutal, racist system. I don’t buy it.

  3. HDG said on August 1st, 2009 at 8:28pm #

    He doesn’t like banks. He doesn’t like car makers. We don’t want pain.

    The end justifies the means. Seeing?

  4. PTB said on August 2nd, 2009 at 7:23pm #

    I’m going to for the most part have to agree with Hue’s assessment. This is an overly generous explanation of Obama’s political maneuvering. Obama doesn’t even feel free to dialogue about race openly (as evidenced by his backtracking and trying to clean up his original comments concerning Gates’ arrest) as a black man in the presidential seat. What he did here and what Gates is doing here by accepting Obama’s invitation does nothing to create a public forum about race politics in America, it in fact does just the opposite.

  5. beverly said on August 2nd, 2009 at 8:05pm #

    “Gatesgate” has gotten beyond ridiculous. Oh the irony part one. Like Obama, Gates loves to wag the finger at the black “underclass” for its failings and for crying racism, and, both are enraptured with the purported post-racial America. Now Gates finds himself in a “fill-in-the-verb” While Black moment and he’s the pitiable victim of racism. Perhaps if he didn’t mouth off with his “Don’t you know who I am” act AFTER the cop was leaving, he wouldn’t have been arrested. Be one a 7-figure Harvard professor or low 5-figure working stiff, one will rarely win an argument with the police, regardless of the racial hue of the officer. In most instances, it’s wiser to do as the officer requests and prepare to call your lawyer and civilian complaint board for redress.

    Oh the irony part two. Obama has much to say when his chum Gates gets victimized by the police but is beyond cautious in his comments about the hail of bullets that killed unarmed Sean Bell and the caught on tape San Fran cop who shot a black suspect in the back while he was face down and subdued by police.

    A beer at the White House? How quaint. And lame. If only Obama could find time to invite those with real important matters (single payer advocates who’ve been shut out of health reform debate, unemployed folks and working poor who can tell him what’s really going on out here, for starters) over for refreshments rather than a cop and citizen whose incident should have been handled locally and long ago gotten off the 24/7 media frenzy meter.

    Let’s talk about race. Rah, rah. And what do we do once we’ve talked, cried, argued, and sung Kumbaya? Go back to our jobs (if we have one) with wages that don’t pay enough to live off, to homes facing foreclosure or late rent payments, to shelters overflowing due to crappy economy and lack of affordable housing, to worry about loved ones sent to be killed and injured in immoral wars based on lies, to aches and pains we can’t afford a doctor/dentist/hospital bill to cure, to schools that turn out test taking automatons, not critical thinkers and inquisitive minds, and the list goes on?

    As usual, the politicians jump at any chance to avoid the real issues thwarting progress in this country. They’ll convene a town hall or all- star race commission in a heartbeat which result in pronouncements, apologies, and empty promises. But they damn sure won’t provide the social and economic framework needed to better the lives of people regardless of racial category. All this p.c., come together, let’s talk about race bullshit is just a smokescreen to avoid discussion of a domestic (and foreign) policy agenda that keeps the many in dire straits and paying for the reckless and corrupt whims of the power elite few.

    People are tired of talk. They need actions that help them do more than just get by and hang on out here.

  6. Eric said on August 5th, 2009 at 7:41am #


    The meeting between Obama, Crowely and Gates over beers trivializes the problem of police abuse and racial oppression that Black Americans endure on a daily basis.

    Gates should sue the Cambridge police Pept. and ask for Croweley’s job. Not just for his own sake but for the sake of those in Cambrigde Mass. who have no voice. Justice must replace abuse.

    As for Obama, reaching for the beer bottle when there is a problem ?
    What an example for kids! Obama need not lecture the Black American community about responsibility and behaviour when he can be so easily distracted by Budweiser. When Holder was in the Clinton Justice Dept. he found that Diallo’s civil rights had not been violated after being shot more than 50 times.

    Given the positions taken in the past by Gates, Holder and Obama on race, it seems to me that these persons are most unqualified to offer solutions on race.



  7. Phil said on August 5th, 2009 at 11:36am #

    Well, fellas, let’s not forget that this is the president who miraculously declared us 90% of the way to racial equality back during his campaign. If anyone can suddenly magically cover the remaining 10 with a simple Bud Light, obviously O is the guy for the job.