It was an exhausting, draining, demanding experience. And it lasted for more than a week.
In the 10 days or so since George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, all we have heard about is race, race, race.
Which happens to be America’s favorite subject not to talk about.
We talk about race only at moments of crisis, when it cannot be avoided. Otherwise, race is something that, as a nation, we wish we didn’t have to discuss at all. Sort of like the Vietnam War, only more so.
I am talking about white America, of course. For black people and other minorities, race is something they have to confront on a daily basis. But even though we have a black president, that doesn’t mean he wants to lead a national conversation about race. Far from it.
As David Maraniss, the Washington Post associate editor and brilliant biographer, wrote a few days ago, Barack Obama, once having been intensely interested in race, changed after his election to the presidency in 2008.
“Race seemingly became unimportant, if not irrelevant, to the first black president of the United States,” Maraniss wrote. “He rarely spoke about it, only when circumstances pressed him — once when a notable African American Harvard professor was detained by a cop for forcibly entering his own home after being locked out, and again when a jury found the man who shot Martin not guilty.”
Yet the president spoke movingly and personally about race in an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room on Friday. In some ways, I liked this talk more than the famous “A More Perfect Union” speech that he delivered in Philadelphia on March 8, 2008, in order to confront and distance himself from the racial comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
That speech came at a time of political crisis. The Zimmerman acquittal was a different kind of crisis. There had been demonstrations, and President Obama could not afford to have them grow into riots. But he also wanted white America to understand what black America was going through post-verdict.
The most quoted line was “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” But Obama went on: “And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
It doesn’t. Talking about it goes away, but living it does not. “There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off,” Obama said. “That happens often.”
It doesn’t even have to come from strangers. In his 2008 speech, Obama talked about his white grandmother, a “woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
These are difficult, emotional and often searing experiences that Obama talked about. So should we all talk about it? Should Americans of all races talk about it?
Here, the president said, things get tricky.
“You know, there has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race,” he said Friday. “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.”
Obama didn’t say it, but Bill Clinton launched a grandiose “President’s Initiative on Race” in his second term that was supposed to lead to a meaningful national conversation on the subject, but ended up largely a failure and is little remembered today.
So let’s forget “politicians” trying to organize talk about race, Obama said. Instead, he said “in families, churches and workplaces,” people could be “a little bit more honest.”
“At least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?” the president said. “That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
In my opinion he is absolutely correct. And I can see such deep, serious and difficult discussions taking place across this nation approximately never.
Such conversations need impetus, leadership and discipline to avoid people just shouting past each other, as they do on Twitter and cable TV.
Obama has already found another subject. A White House release announced over the weekend that Obama would spend this week on a “series of speeches that will lay out his vision for rebuilding an economy that puts the middle class and those fighting to join it front and center.”
Race? That box has been checked. Race is so ... last week.
And now we can move on as a nation to resume our national silence.
Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.