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When It Comes To Race, Obama Walks A Tightrope


Last week, President Obama responded to a reporter's question about the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Stanford, Florida.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.

GREENE: Almost immediately, the president's Republican opponents said he was being divisive by bringing up racial issues. Here's Newt Gingrich the same day.

NEWT GINGRICH: ...object to personalizing, in a way. Any young American who gets killed is a tragedy, of any ethnic background.

GREENE: Lester Spence teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University and he focuses on racial politics, and we wanted to bring him in to discuss this. Good morning, Professor.

LESTER SPENCE: Good morning.

GREENE: So what do you think of President Obama's handling of the Trayvon Martin case so far? We really haven't heard that much from the White House.

SPENCE: I'm a parent, not just a professor, I'm a parent. I have three sons. And I think that speech was actually perfect. That had the perfect tone, and as I've been thinking about this case, the fundamental question to me is if African Americans are Americans, when a tragedy like this happens, do we have the right to have our president speak to us? And I think the president answered that question in the best way he could.

GREENE: There have been a lot of questions about President Obama and when he brings up race and whether there are political risks. Give us sort of the political lay of the land.

SPENCE: We still have - even though we've changed in a number of ways, there's still significant racial animus. And so in that context, the president has a tight rope to walk as far as when he speaks about these issues, and what he says. I would actually argue that, at least rhetorically, he's more cautious than he should be because he's really fearful of an electoral backlash.

GREENE: It's interesting, as you followed his career, I mean, you say this is not a topic that he seems happy and comfortable to delve into all that often in public. What has been the reaction to that and to the handling of race, you know, on a broader level, from the African American community these last few years?

SPENCE: So there black - black people kind of on the ground as it were, and they express a great deal of support for the president, and they understand what those constraints are, if for no other reason than many African Americans have to deal with that constraint in their daily lives.

But at the same time, there's a segment of, kind of, a black elite class that expresses skepticism, and at times frustration, with the president, and - not just how he deals with race, but really how he deals with the issue of inequality.

GREENE: You said that the type of constraint that President Obama feels is a type of constraint that African Americans, like yourself, feel every day. What do you mean by that?

SPENCE: Well, so if you take that Trayvon Martin moment, right, and why so many people saw themselves at Trayvon Martin. Like, after we wrap this up, I'm going to go back to Hopkins and teach. Every moment I'm on that campus, I carry, kind of, the race with me. And that causes me to have to think about how I carry myself, given that there are not a number of - significant number of African Americans on campus anyway.

I have to make sure that I'm dressed appropriately, you know, that people know that I'm a professor, that I actually am supposed to there. I've actually had at least one incident of racial harassment on campus. Even as I felt I was being racially harassed, I had to be very, very calm. I had to use proper English. I couldn't be upset at all for fear that they would use that anger against me and actually put my career in jeopardy.

GREENE: You're comparing that to kind of the feeling that President Obama has, that if he were to bring up race, it takes him to a different place in terms of his identity.

SPENCE: Yes. So every president has to think about what they do and say carefully. But being the first self-identified black president, he has to actually have another set of considerations.

GREENE: Professor Spence, thank you so much for joining us, as always.

SPENCE: Thank you very much for having me.

GREENE: Lester Spence teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.