Opinion: Race issue demands attention

In his final term as president, Barack Obama has spent more time and energy voicing the concerns of minorities.

It’s what people of color have wanted him to do since 2008, when he became the first African-American elected to the Oval Office. Events of 2014 made his speaking out essential.

The slaying of black 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 by a white Ferguson police officer and the protests and unrest that followed were things Obama couldn’t ignore. The president called for calm after violence erupted once a state grand jury decided against charges in Brown’s death.

Calls for calm followed a New York grand jury deciding not to file charges in the July 17 choking death of 43-year-old Eric Garner. It was videotaped on a cellphone with Garner being wrestled to the ground by police. Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”

Everyone in white America may not understand Obama’s actions, and some may hate him for giving voice to so many African-Americans’ long-standing concerns that black lives in this country should matter. During Black History Month, the president’s speaking out on these issues is greatly appreciated.

People magazine recently even quoted Obama and his wife, Michelle, saying events of last year caused them to talk publicly about discussions they have with their daughters, Sasha and Malia. “This has been an ongoing conversation that we’ve had since they were young,” Obama said.

He said that their daughters’ generation, like Generations X and Y, see issues of race differently from African-American baby boomers and their parents. “They take for granted that being treated differently because of their race makes no sense,” he said. Yet, the “vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow” are very real concerns. Although things are better than they have been for past generations of people of color, “those biases are still there.”

It’s important for parents to have that talk with their black and biracial children so the kids will know how to handle racism, discrimination and bigotry when confronted with it. They shouldn’t internalize it as their problem.

Racism is America’s Sisyphean problem. African-Americans and other people of color have to know how to maneuver around it in order to succeed.

The president is right when he said about his daughters: “We don’t want them to be constrained by any stereotypes. So when something like Ferguson or the Trayvon Martin case happens, around the dinner table we’re pointing out to them that too often in our society black boys are still perceived as more dangerous, and that it will be part of their generation’s task to try to eradicate those old stereotypes.”

Each generation of Americans has to own the responsibility to try to squash the racism that has impeded progress and potential in this country. Change has been glacial with a lot of backsliding.

“These incidents in the black community, this is a regular course of life,” Obama said. “These are challenges that we still face as a country.”

Obama shared a personal story. “There is no black male my age, who’s a professional who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys.”

I’ve been there. It happens so often that black comics add it to their routine. Michelle Obama recalled for the People interview being asked as first lady in a Target store by another shopper to get something from a shelf for her.

Obama called them “small irritations or indignities” compared to what people of earlier generations’ suffered. Many people of color today don’t dwell on the slights just as our parents didn’t. We still hope that one day we will be seen and appreciated for the value that we bring to this country as Americans. Yes, we have a black president, and there has been a lot of progress.

But we’re still waiting, still hoping.