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"There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race," he said. "I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and 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? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."
In short, he held out no hope for a conversation on race led by himself or any other elected official. As for conversations in smaller, private forums—well, he wasn’t optimistic about that idea either, but there was a bare "possibility" some might prove marginally beneficial. His bottom line: "at least" you can have a conversation with yourself.
"I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better," said Obama. "Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race." This progress is undeniable—look who’s president! But progress has been made on race even though a decent conversation on race remains all but impossible. The idea that our troubles eat us up inside unless we talk about them might be wildly overblown: some conversations lead swiftly and invariably to polarization, whereas in the privacy of our thoughts we can more safely tweak our prejudices.
Or maybe all Obama was saying was that national conversations on anything never go anywhere, so why should race be any different? It was just the other day, after Edward Snowden revealed a couple of secret surveillance programs, that the president told Charlie Rose, "What I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities."
How’s that conversation coming? The federal government is still trying to get its hands on Snowden, and not because they’d like him to moderate a panel.
In early June Obama, addressing the National Conference on Mental Health, called for a national conversation. "The main goal of this conference," he said, "is not to start a conversation—so many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows."
"National conversation on . . ." is a catchphrase. Presidents slide it into speeches; copy desks feature it in headlines. It roughly means "what we could all be talking about instead of Anthony Weiner." If the White House is serious about national conversations, the Cabinet should be expanded to include a Department of Catharsis, and someone like Dr. Phil should be named to run it. A national conversation sounds a lot easier than it is, and we foot soldiers need leadership. The time I spotted an intelligent-looking older woman reading a book on the el and I sat down next to her and said, "I want to talk to you about mental illness"—well, it didn’t go well.