Janet Langhart Cohen | The president should speak out on race

In the wake of the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, President Barack Obama has called on the American people to engage in calm reflection.

Few expected the president to denounce the verdict or call upon people to take to the streets in protest, but we did expect him to speak in a way that touched the heartbreak, despair and quiet rage that so many of us feel at this moment.

On multiple occasions, Obama has asked blacks to understand the high wire he is forced to walk on the subject of race. He has pleaded that we cut him some slack.

Most have done so even as conditions in the black community have become more desperate.

We have waited and watched the president address issues of importance to women, gays and lesbians, Latinos and the security of our allies.

We praised his boldness in speaking to the issue of sexual orientation during his visit to Africa.

For the past four years, we have remained silent; some have been satisfied that Obama being the first black president was reason enough to seal our lips and muffle our voices. But most were convinced that, once he entered his second term, Obama would be liberated from the racial harness that politics forced him to wear.

During this period of self-imposed silence, we have watched our criminal laws become racialized and our race criminalized. Blacks continue to be faced with punishing unfairness and inequalities.

Soaring rates of unemployment, discriminatory drug laws, disproportionate prison sentences, unequal access to health care and healthy food, unfair stop-and-frisk policies and “accidental” shootings of unarmed black men by the police — these and more are treated with indifference or contempt. We’re told to stop complaining, to get over it. No one cares.

But that’s just the point of living in the United States. Somebody is supposed to care.

Our elected officials, beginning with the president, are charged with the responsibility of listening to the needs, the grievances, the voices of the people — including people of color.

It’s the reason every black leader from Frederick Douglass to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has urged us to speak up, agitate, march, brave the beatings from fire hoses, the bull whips and dogs, to touch the conscience of the American people with the righteousness of our demands for equal opportunity and justice.

It is my hope that Obama will do what Nelson Mandela did when he was forced to stand trial before an Afrikaner court for the crime of fighting for freedom.

He wore his tribal kaross as his coat of arms and his blackness as his badge of honor.

And when he was liberated from prison, “Madiba” spoke out — not for revenge or retribution, but for justice, for the need to seek truth and reconciliation.

Mandela will forever stand tall in the world’s hall of heroes because he remained unbent and unbroken before his adversaries.

But he will be especially revered for his courage in asking his nation to face the truth of its past.

A leader does not have to be black to speak out on behalf of those who are suffering disproportionately in our society.

President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy spoke passionately about the need to rectify the patent inequalities experienced by blacks. President Lyndon B. Johnson, invoking the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” called on the American people “to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based on race or color” and pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But just as one does not have to be black to speak to the issues of race, black people should not have to wait for white leaders to be elected before they feel free to vigorously petition their government to redress their legitimate grievances.

I say this with respect: To use the Rev. Martin Luther King’s phrase, there is a fierce urgency of now for the president to talk boldly and truthfully about race and racism and why it still matters in the United States.

I hope President Obama will speak not just to black people or just to white people but to the good people in America. We can never have racial reconciliation without discussing the truth.

The sound of silence is a song that we can no longer sing.