It’s time for Obama to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” policy on racism

African Americans, Featured — By Hasan Kwame Jeffries on February 10, 2010 at 8:31 am

In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has moved to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military policy initiated by the Clinton Administration that sidesteps the issue of gays serving in the military by pretending that they simply are not there. Without a doubt, Obama is doing the right thing because the policy is patently absurd. The staged silence created by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” solves nothing. It certainly does not end discrimination against gays in the military. If anything, it exacerbates the problems that gays in and out of the service face.

Having seen the light about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Obama needs to move swiftly to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk,” the White House policy that sidesteps the issue of racism in America by directing the president not to talk about it.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” took shape during the presidential campaign. Throughout Obama’s historic run for the White House, he tried his hardest to avoid talking about racism in today’s society. To be sure, he talked about his own racial lineage, repeating ad nauseam that he was the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya.

But discussing one’s racial heritage is not the same as commenting on the persistence of racism in America. And on those rare occasions when Obama felt compelled to discuss racism, such as during the Rev. Jeremiah Wright sound bite controversy, he reduced racism in the 21st century to personal prejudice – to black anger over past discrimination and white resentment over Affirmative Action. Contemporary structural and institutional manifestations of racism received short shrift.

As president, Obama has continued “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk.” If no one asks him about racism, he simply does not talk about it. There have been occasions, of course, when he has been prodded to say something, most notably during the brouhaha surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but even on those occasions, he has shied away from seriously interrogating the issue. After initially offering a strong indictment of racialized police misconduct, he shifted gears. An all too familiar incident of racial profiling became a simple misunderstanding that could be resolved over a couple of beers.

The problem with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” is that the president’s silence on racism in general, and on structural racism in particular, has led to public policies that fail to consider race. Federal stimulus measures are a clear and troubling example of this. Although African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the meltdown in the mortgage industry and the ongoing recession, recovery efforts emanating from the White House have ignored their particular plight. By failing to address race and racism explicitly, these economic policies, which are race neutral in language only, have prolonged and exacerbated the current financial crisis for far too many African Americans.

Ironically, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” has received the tacit approval of many African Americans who insist that all will be lost if Obama talks publicly about racism. Their great fear, of course, is that talking about racism will scare the diversity out of white folk.

The truth of the matter, though, is that Obama’s critics, particularly those on the far right (which is more near than far these days), will oppose his policies and fan the flames of white racial anxiety whether he talks about racism or not.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” solves nothing. It merely allows racism to persist unchallenged. It is imperative, therefore, that Obama end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Talk” and address directly in word and deed the many manifestations of racism today.

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Author: Hasan Kwame Jeffries (6 Articles)

Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Author of "Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt." Hasan is an associate professor of African American history and holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute and the Department of History. Dr. Jeffries specializes in twentieth century African American history and has an expertise in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. His current book project investigates the African American Freedom Struggle in Lowndes County, Alabama, which gave birth in 1966 to the Lowndes County Freedom Party, an all Black, independent, political party that was also the original Black Panther Party. His recent publications include "SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966," which appears in the Journal of African American History (Spring 2006). Dr. Jeffries has received several fellowships in support of his research, including a 2007-2008 Ford Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship. Prior to arriving at The Ohio State University in 2003, he was a Bankhead Fellow in the History Department at the University of Alabama. Dr. Jeffries earned his B.A. in History from Morehouse College in 1994, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in African American History from Duke University in 1997 and 2002.


  • GMC262 says:

    Judging by the response Obama got from merely commenting on the Skip Gates incident, he may have little incentive to engage the country on race. As I recall, rather than accuse the officer of racism didn’t Obama start out by stating “I don’t know what part race played in the matter”? Yet many seemed to feel that he was butting in where he had no business-even some of the black officers from the Cambridge police department. Your point is well taken, but the dialogue on race in this country is probably going to be advanced by those who don’t have to worry about seeking reelection. That approach has certainly worked for Sarah Palin, who since leaving office is free to spout complete nonsense and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • Rev. Dave Rev. Dave says:

    Perhaps the President needs to take another page out of President Reagan’s playbook: Pres. Reagan didn’t go about “facilitating a dialogue on patriotism.” He talked about what it meant to him to be a patriot. Mass media and ditto-heads took over from there.

    When Pres. Obama talks about what it means to America to be creating Dr. King’s “Beloved Community”; or working, as community organizer Obama did, across race lines; or moving the country forward into a healthy multiracial E Pluribus Unum future; then it’ll still be up to (social- &) mass media and ditto-heads to take over from there.

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