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Where's Obama's leadership on race?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Some of President Obama's supporters unhappy with his approach on race
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says they want Obama to use "teachable moments"
  • He says Obama shouldn't have given Harry Reid a pass for his remarks
  • A year into presidency, Obama still hasn't addressed toughest race issues, Navarrette says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to Contact him here

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Some African-Americans insist that President Obama should lead a national dialogue on race when there are high-profile racial incidents that capture the nation's attention. And, in that regard, at least one prominent and highly quotable African-American intellectual thinks Obama is falling down on the job.

Georgetown Sociology Professor Michael Eric Dyson was an outspoken supporter of Obama during the election. But in the last six months, he has become an equally outspoken critic.

The split seems to have occurred in July after the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Department. At the time, Dyson was ubiquitous on the airwaves, decrying what he considered a textbook example of racial profiling and calling on Obama to use the bully pulpit and seize on this "teachable moment" to give Americans (read: white Americans) a tutorial on the concept.

Too bad Obama wasn't exactly in a professorial mood. He had already gotten burned by L'Affaire Gates when he said that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly" before having all the facts. Still, by the time Obama held his beer summit with Gates and Crowley at the White House, Dyson was thirsting for more substance from the president.

Strike one.

Now comes what Dyson considers another teachable moment thanks to the boneheaded, insensitive and flat-out racist comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

As you've probably heard by now, according to the new book, "Game Change" by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Reid said privately during the 2008 election that Obama could win the presidency because he is "light-skinned" and speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Reid quickly apologized for "a poor choice of words." Then, it seems, as part of the damage control, he called every black person he knew for absolution. Naturally, Obama got the first call. The president accepted Reid's apology although he called the comments "unfortunate."

What was really unfortunate was that Obama put partisanship before propriety and gave Reid a pass on inexcusable comments for which the Senate majority leader should have been excoriated. It seemed that Reid was saying that the only things Obama had going for him were the way he looked and the way he sounded. Not his intelligence, charisma, skills or policy ideas -- as if one only finds those things in 70-year-old white guys from Nevada.

Dyson came at it differently. He thought Obama blew it by missing another chance to seize on yet another teachable moment. This time, perhaps, Dyson would have preferred the president engage the nation in a discussion about the advantages that light-skinned African-Americans have over those with dark skin or what it means -- at least in the mind of Harry Reid -- to have or not have a "Negro dialect."

Strike two.

So, during an appearance this week on MSNBC, Dyson let Obama have it.

"I think that we should push the president," Dyson said. "This president runs from race like a black man runs from a cop. What we have to do is ask Mr. Obama to stand up and use his bully pulpit to help us. He is loath to speak about race."

The line about Obama running from race "like a black man runs from a cop" is vulgar hyperbole, and it detracts from the message. But the accusation that Obama is "loath to speak about race" is fair and worth thinking about. Later, in another interview on CNN, Dyson chose better words when he said that the Reid comments presented us with a teachable moment and "the professor" was nowhere near the classroom.

I don't often agree with Dyson, but I do this time. He's right on the money. There are plenty of Americans who will argue that Obama has the right approach. He's not the president of black America, they'll say. He's the president of the United States. In fact, many Americans seem to appreciate his "post-racial" qualities and ability to turn down the temperature when confronting the explosive issue of race. They don't think everything should be about race, and they might even resent it if Obama dwelled on it too much.

But politics is about striking a balance. There is a big difference between "too much" and "not at all." Dyson has a valid point. And others are making the same one.

A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that, while 90 percent of African-Americans approve of the job Obama is doing as president, only 18 percent believe he has ushered in a new era of race relations in the United States.

We have a right to expect more from the nation's first black president than for him, every time there is racial eruption, to impersonate a white president. Remember the hopeful feeling that so many Americans had during the campaign when Obama gave that brilliant speech on race in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? We thought that, here, finally was a leader who really "got" race relations.

Well, what we got was Barack Obama. And, a year into his presidency, Americans of all colors are still trying to figure out exactly who he is and what he wants for our country. If he has a vision and he'd like to share it with the rest of us, addressing some of our toughest racial issues in thoughtful and enlightening ways would be a good place to start.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.