Jonathan Alter for The New Yorker: Obama's "Double Consciousness" on Race

July 26th, 2013

Barack Obama
The New Yorker
by Jonathan Alter
July 26, 2013

More than a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of the “double consciousness” of the black man: “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.” President Barack Obama’s extemporaneous remarks in the press room last week about the Trayvon Martin case and the plight of young black men were pitch-perfect in part because they let no one off the hook, not even well-intentioned people who want him to lead what he predicted would be a “stilted” national conversation on race.

But the surprise appearance will have lasting importance if it keeps the President on the hook, too—if it helps reconcile a double consciousness that had left the Obama White House facing some of the most important issues of the day as if under a veil (another of Du Bois’s concepts).

Those who know the President well attest that, for the most part, there aren’t “two Obamas” the way that there were famously “two Clintons” (the policy wonk and the man of appetites). The gap between the public and the private Obama is much smaller than it is for most politicians—except when the subject is race.

In public, he has, until now, tread gingerly; in private, after hours and especially with friends and family, race is often an overt part of the conversation—or else it inhabits a place close to its surface.

The President’s Trayvon talk, and its generally positive response, represents the narrowing of the gap between the public and private Obama. The caution that grew out of his status as the first black President, which one close aide described to me as “the President’s inability to swing at certain pitches” before being reëlected, made it harder to confront social issues that have engaged him deeply since he was a young man.

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