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Commentary: White House can't duck race

  • Story Highlights
  • Drew Westen: Obama has kept low profile on racial issues generally
  • He says the exception was his speech on race during the campaign
  • He says best antidote to racism is to talk openly about how to overcome bias
  • Westen: Americans are ready for a grown-up discussion of race
By Drew Westen
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." He has been a consultant or adviser to several candidates, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies, and informally advised Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Drew Westen says Obama has generally sought to avoid social issues if possible.

Drew Westen says Obama has generally sought to avoid social issues if possible.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Unless one of the three men assembled tonight at the White House for a beer spoils the moment by asking for Chardonnay, it seems likely that the altercation between the professor and the police officer will blow over, and the media will get back to reporting on serious stories, like Michael Jackson's doctor.

The president hopes this will be a "teachable moment," and perhaps the man who gave the most extraordinary speech on race since "I Have a Dream" in March 2008 in Philadelphia will do the same tonight. But it is not yet clear what lessons he wants the country to learn -- or what lessons the White House itself has taken away.

The president's preference on social issues has generally been to avoid them. He talked about race in the 2008 election only when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy threatened to derail his candidacy. But his speech in Philadelphia should have taught an important lesson not only to Obama and his advisers but to the country: that speaking the truth, as uncomfortable as that might be, is far more effective in promoting civility and mutual understanding than pretending the elephant isn't in the room.

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On race, our better angels are our conscious values. Whereas the majority of Americans polled in the 1940s believed that white men should get preferential treatment in hiring over equally qualified black men, only a very small and bigoted few consciously believe that today.

But what we feel and think consciously and unconsciously can be very different things -- and that includes all of us, white and black, liberal and conservative.

Regardless of our conscious attitudes, research shows that most white people respond to the face of a black man presented subliminally -- slow enough for our brains to process it but too quickly for us to see it consciously -- with activation of fear circuits that shows up on brain scans.

Jurors give harsher sentences to darker-skinned black defendants than lighter-skinned ones. And police of all colors and ethnicities appear to be quicker to draw their guns -- and, as we have seen in multiple tragic shootings, fire their guns -- when the suspect who might be reaching for his identification is black.

These are not acts of overt racism, and we oversimplify the issue and unnecessarily polarize the public -- as has happened with this most recent incident -- when we lump together old-fashioned bigotry with unconscious associations, like the associations between dark, black and dangerous that are hard for many of us to break, regardless of our conscious values.

The best way to address unconscious associations and biases -- including in the black community, where darker skin can confer disadvantages as well, and where police tend to be associated with arbitrary treatment -- is to make them conscious: talk about them, try to understand what it feels to be the victim of them, and try to understand what it feels like to be treated like a racist or a criminal when the shoe doesn't fit.

If the lesson we learn as a nation is that good people -- white or black, male or female, straight or gay -- can harbor prejudices or make assumptions of which they're not even aware and that speaking the unspoken and hearing each other out (listening to both our own and each other's legitimate grievances as well as our biases, and trying to sort them out) is the best antidote to incivility based on difference, then this will truly have been a teachable moment.

But I hope the White House takes away the right lesson from this encounter as well, other than that the president should not answer questions about racial issues in news conferences.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen an upswing in racial incidents, renewed fervor of the "birther" movement and racially charged images of the president. For several weeks, Americans have been wrestling, in one way or another, with the question of who constitutes "us."

Perhaps it is no accident that this has occurred since the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court hearings, a time when I've heard white and black friends speak privately in far more racially polarized terms than I've heard in years. The hearings were bound to be racially charged, not just because the judge was Hispanic or because of her "wise Latina" comment.

The Supreme Court had just overturned a decision her court had let stand, in which the City of New Haven had thrown out the results of a pencil and paper test for promotion in the city's fire department when it became clear that the results would eliminate all black firefighters who had passed the test from consideration.

In a 5-4 ruling, the majority ruled that the city had knuckled under to political pressure in abandoning a test no competent psychologist would consider valid (trying to predict competence and ability to lead firefighters into burning buildings with a No. 2 pencil).

The Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee repeatedly raised the case and even called as a witness against the president's nominee the white plaintiff who had studied for hours to overcome his learning disability, and affirmative action was a constant topic of discussion for two weeks in the media.

But the discussion was largely one-sided. The White House had clearly made the decision that the best way to address the issue was not to talk about it. It figured, correctly, that the Republicans would overplay their hand and badger the nominee. And it figured, correctly, that if Sotomayor followed the strategy used by every successful nominee in recent memory of saying as little as possible about what she actually believes, she would easily win confirmation.

But what it didn't figure was that the constant discussion of "reverse discrimination" against white firefighters might ignite smoldering racial embers. The White House forgot the lesson of Philadelphia: that talking with Americans like grown-ups, and speaking with them about the truths on both sides of an issue, is the best way to address social issues, particularly involving race.

The pollster Celinda Lake and I had just collected data suggesting that the American people are actually ready for a more grown-up discussion of affirmative action than "Not fair!" vs. "Is too!" It turns out that most Americans see the progress we've made and don't want to turn back the clock, but they also don't want 20th-century solutions to 21st-century problems.

They want to keep what's worked, end what hasn't and revise what needs revision to fit changing times. And they don't like stereotyping, whether that's assuming a woman, black or Hispanic in a position of authority is a "token" or that a white male who punches a time card or works in a coal mine is "privileged."

The White House played it safe on Sotomayor, but it missed a teachable moment, before racial flames had been ignited. It's a lot harder to teach in a burning school.

But if anyone can, I suspect it's the man who'll be serving up the cool ones tonight.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Drew Westen.

All About Barack ObamaRacial IssuesSonia Sotomayor

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