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Dear Obama, the Time for Presidential Leadership on Race Is Now

From the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling to Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, race is dominating the news. That’s why the president must drop partisan politics and unite us.

04.28.14 9:45 AM ET

Dear Mr. President:

Not too many years ago, you stood before a cheering crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park to acknowledge your presidential victory. Among the many things you said that evening, you noted:

“Americans…sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.

“We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

“It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

Your campaign was predicated on hope and change, but today the country stands more polarized on issues of race, class, and gender than ever before. Many of your fellow Americans are more cynical, fearful, and doubtful about what we can achieve as a nation because the arc of history of the last several years has shown that your promises remained just that. And ultimately, you pursued a partisan political agenda rather than seek to unify the country and move us together.

Over the last week, from Washington, D.C., to Nevada, events have stretched the cultural fabric that binds us together as Americans like never before. Your fellow citizens have begun to question the motto of our country—“E pluribus unum,” or “Out of many, one”—and wonder whether we are returning to the racial balkanization of the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. President, you can speak out and help us confront this corrosive element, but time is running out.

First, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action to permit citizens in individual states to prohibit racial preferences for college admissions. Attorney General Eric Holder characterized Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, in which she advocated for discriminating on the basis of race to address racism today, as “courageous.” While I believe the attorney general was wrong to support efforts to divide and discriminate our citizens along racial lines, he was right to say: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”

The only person who should be having that open and candid discussion at this juncture with the American people is you, Mr. President. You could remind Americans, for one, that the University of Michigan has done for decades what Dr. Martin Luther King challenged us to do more than a half-century ago: Treat our fellow citizens based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Next, you could help move the country past the waters roiled by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who made vile and racist remarks on more than one occasion last week. Putting aside the way the Bureau of Land Management intervened in a grazing dispute, Bundy’s remarks have no place in our society. You could use your remarkable platform to make that point clear while calling on your fellow citizens to judge their neighbors, coworkers and fellow Americans once again by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

You should speak publicly to those in the Democratic Party who seek to remain in power by branding their political opponents as racist. Earlier this week the Christian Science Monitor characterized Bundy’s remarks as a “campaign gift to Democrats.” That is only true if you believe winning by dividing the country on matters of race is more important than uniting and leading our country to take on the serious issues we face. Political disagreement is the hallmark of our democracy; political demagoguery at the expense of unity will destroy our society over time.

To be sure, there are some in the country who oppose you solely because of their racist and ignorant beliefs. I have often been critical of your policies but respectful of you and the office you hold.

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Finally, last week ended with a disturbing TMZ recording of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly telling his girlfriend:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?

“You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that…and not to bring them to my games.

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f***ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.

“…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

Apparently Sterling was upset that his girlfriend had posted a photo on Instagram of herself with Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Condemnation from players and coaches around the NBA was justifiably swift and harsh. Perhaps the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP should rethink the Lifetime Achievement Award it is set to bestow on Sterling next month.

That three of the week’s biggest news stories—the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling—had racial overtones is disturbing but hardly unusual. Hardly a day goes by now when the country isn’t confronted with an incidence or allegation of racism. What was once the exception has become the norm.

Mr. President, there is a window of opportunity for you to address the racial tension that has flared in recent days and threatens our standing as the greatest beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. Why don’t you call on a group of your fellow Americans—everyday citizens rather than civil rights leaders and the clergy—to conduct an honest town hall discussion on race with you in the East Room? Rather than seeking to gain partisan advantage, you could use the culmination of many years of racial acrimony to admonish those who seek to gain from bigotry rather than unity.

The time to act is now, Mr. President. Your silence on such a serious issue will embolden those who stoke the flames of hatred that will scorch us all, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, from red states and blue states—American citizens all.