WASHINGTON -- We should talk honestly about unresolved racial issues, such as those exposed by the Trayvon Martin case, but President Obama is not the best person to lead the discussion. Through no fault of his own, he might be the worst.

The need for what diplomats call a "full and frank exchange of views" is obvious. Many Americans don't even agree that there are unresolved racial issues, much less that such issues played a role in George Zimmerman's acquittal. It's as if some of us live on different planets.

What we're doing now, in an awkward and uncomfortable way, is talking about those beliefs and experiences -- shouting about them, actually. For better or for worse, this seems to be the way we conduct the "national conversation about race" that thoughtful people are always recommending.

Here's how it works: Something happens that makes the subject of race all but unavoidable. We stake out our positions. We get all worked up. We start to get frustrated. Gradually we lose focus and the dialogue, such as it was, peters out. No one feels we've made any headway. Often we have, though the progress may not be evident for some time.

The record indicates that honest talk from Obama about race is seen by many people as threatening.

Obama's factual statement that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon" drew shrieks of accusation that the president was unfairly taking sides in a criminal case.

The designation "first black (fill in the blank)" always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama's -- he bears many -- is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

On Friday, Obama tried to frame African-Americans' passion about the Zimmerman verdict in the historical context of discrimination and racial profiling. At the same time, he offered the hopeful view that "as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been ... things are getting better." Perhaps this intervention will be more productive.

But Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family -- the proud, African-American first family -- walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

 

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.