Tamping down race talk

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Following up on his State of the Union address, President Obama in Baton Rouge, La.

Nearly 14 years ago, Mayor John Street upset many white Philadelphians with off-the-cuff remarks he excitedly made at a national convention of the NAACP. "Let me tell you," he said, "the brothers and sisters are running the city. Oh, yes. Running it! Don't you let nobody fool you; we are in charge of the City of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!"

Councilman Jim Kenney called Street's comments "a general divisive, nasty message to the people who live in the city and the people who live around the city." Republicans distributed fliers emblazoned with Street's words in largely white Northeast neighborhoods. City Republican Committee Chairman Vito Canuso said, "We've got to remind them that this city is not being run right, and that's because Republicans are not running it."

The episode came to mind as I watched President Obama make his final State of the Union address Tuesday night and thought about how he has carefully avoided having a similar John Street moment over the last seven years. To the consternation and sometimes indignation of some African Americans, Obama has taken great care to be perceived as a president who happens to be black rather than as a black president.

There have been occasions when that wasn't so. Most memorably, after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son," Obama said. "Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. 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 doesn't go away."

Before his election in 2008, many African Americans feared that Obama, with a white mother and Kenyan father, and having spent much of his childhood outside the United States, didn't identify enough with the "set of experiences" that included slavery and segregation to best represent their interests in the White House. In fact, much of the early support among black Democrats in that election tilted toward Hillary Clinton. But as the possibility of an Obama presidency increased, blacks became more excited about what it would mean to have one of us in charge.

Seven years later, a number of African Americans question whether it has made a difference. They point to the persistently large gaps between blacks and whites when looking at economic and social indicators such as education, jobs, income, savings, investments, health, mortality, and imprisonment. They criticize Obama for not directly addressing the racial aspect of each disparity. Instead, Obama has promoted programs that would help the African American community without specifically targeting it, one of the few exceptions being the My Brother's Keeper initiative he created in 2014 to encourage minority boys and young men to be successful.

In his speech Tuesday night, Obama again left out how blacks are inordinately affected by the trends he said make "a lot of Americans feel anxious. . . . Today, technology doesn't just replace jobs on the assembly line but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face greater competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top."

In such an economy, people on the lowest rungs of society are buffeted the most - and in America, black people are at the bottom of the ladder. Their poverty rate is 27 percent, compared with 14.5 percent for whites; their annual median income is $34,598, compared with $51,939 for whites.

Obama said that to succeed in this economy, you need better education and training that can lead to better-paying jobs, but he spoke in generic terms. With a year left in his presidency, many African Americans would have been heartened to hear Obama talk about how the economy affects them, even if his proposed remedies aren't racially targeted.

Obama has let his feelings show after tragedies like the Newtown, Conn., massacre of 20 children and the murder of nine congregants attending Bible study at a Charleston, S.C., church. But he has guarded his thoughts when extremists lampooned him with racist characterizations.

I guess that's what a black president must do if elected in a nation that includes people who would be upset if he talked about "brothers and sisters" being in charge. Perhaps the next black president will feel free to discuss race more openly. But even as the country prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King's Birthday, it looks as if that won't be anytime soon.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer. hjackson@phillynews.com