Beers and Handshakes at the White House

July 26, 2009

How did a “post-racial” black president with extraordinary empathy, an exemplary police officer who specializes in racial profiling, and one of the country’s great scholars on race relations crash into each other on the topic of race?

Maureen Dowd chalked it up to a “town vs. gown” clash of egos, which feels too simplistic. As does Obama’s attribution of stupidity.  One clear sign of a systemic problem, we’ve learned in our business, is the folks at the top blaming errant, front-line employees.

A typical organization works to get average inputs to create excellence.  In this case, excellent inputs created a massive service failure, which means that the system is probably broken.  Learning occurs when we understand why reasonable people make the choices they do, so let’s give the principals here – the professor, the cop and the President — the benefit of the doubt, and see where it lands us.

Here’s my quick accounting.  The cop thought he was interrupting a burglary.  As a white person, he had the luxury of not experiencing the events that followed through the prism of race.  He could just do his job.  The professor did not have that option.  He responded to the possibility of arrest in his own home for an ambiguous crime in a context of deep distrust between “black and blue” in America.

That distrust turned standard procedures and routine questions into the perception of race-based aggression.  The professor responded disrespectfully to his experience of being disrespected.  The cop responded to his experience of being disrespected with handcuffs.  Enter the President, who used his bully pulpit to name the context of distrust that escalated the incident – racial profiling – a phenomenon that is both improving and that no one really disputes.

So the problem here – and this is not breaking news – is that race still influences the experience of American citizenship.  And this moment represents an extraordinary opportunity to talk about it, to surface and address the lingering symptoms of our country’s “original sin,” a social, economic and political system that was not race-blind, to put it mildly.

It turns out that the same people that failed to produce a good law enforcement outcome are perfectly positioned to lead that conversation.  The brilliant scholar, visionary President and honorable officer could engage a public that’s leaning forward to build trust that would improve our public life.  The biggest risk at this point is that the opportunity will be lost in a series of photo-ops, press conferences and politicized meetings designed primarily to benefit the individuals involved.

There’s a collective opportunity here, which the President described as a “teachable moment.”  But we’re unlikely to get there with beers and handshakes at the White House.  We’re unlikely to learn anything from this moment unless someone makes a clear decision to lead us.


Palin 2012

June 16, 2009

I started to write about Sarah Palin as a serious presidential contender — not something people like to think about in this neck of the woods — and then I found a piece from Roger Simon in Politico with better insight into Palin’s candidacy than I was bringing to the table.

Simon’s advice to Palin, which includes “Don’t Believe You Can’t Do It” and “Don’t Worry About Failure,” applies beyond the strange, through-the-looking-glass world of electoral politics, particularly for aspiring leaders who think of themselves as outsiders.  The best of his advice was this:

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE SMARTER THAN YOU ARE. That shouldn’t be hard, her opponents will say.  OK, let them laugh.  They laughed at George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000 and at Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor of California in 2003.  Both benefited from low expectations and smart staffs.

I am not one of those people who believe that staffs win or lose elections — candidates win or lose elections — but the Democratic presidential race in 2008 certainly demonstrated the difference that staffs can make.  Hillary Clinton assembled a staff of loyal people who were largely inexperienced in presidential campaigning.  Barack Obama assembled a staff of loyal people who were very experienced in presidential campaigning. It made a difference.

As Simon’s advice suggests, women legitimately identify as outsiders in politics.  The number of women serving in higher office in the U.S. doesn’t reflect the female fraction of the population, not by a long shot, and there are more and less surprising reasons for this phenomenon.  For anyone interested in the subject, Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at Brown University who ran for Congress in Rhode Island and lost, wrote a compelling, data-driven book on the subject called  It Takes a Candidate:  Why Women Don’t Run for Office.

Lawless points out the structural barriers to female candidates, including a system strongly biased towards incumbents, who are usually male.  But I found the more useful and challenging parts of her message to be the things that individuals can change instantaneously.  One lever that female candidates control is mustering up the audacity to run, which women seem to systematically resist.  Another is getting over the distaste for becoming subjects of “attack politics” and “dirty campaigning,” which Lawless herself had to do.

I heard Lawless speak recently.  She said she got over the mudslinging relatively quickly, once she realized that being attacked meant being taken seriously.  She said a highlight of the campaign, in fact, was the first time her opponent ran an attack ad against her, with thinly veiled critiques of her age, gender and weight.  When she saw the spot she hugged her campaign manager with delight, a response that seemed inconceivable at the beginning of the campaign.

By this measure, do not let the widespread fear and loathing of Sarah Palin (and Hillary Clinton) turn you off, ladies.  It may be a very good sign for female candidates everywhere.  Or as Roger Simon might advise, “Pick More Fights With David Letterman.”