President Obama made headlines Monday after appearing on Marc Maron’s podcast to discuss race relations in the wake of nine murders committed by an apparent white supremacist in South Carolina. Using the n-word to make his point, Obama said that racism has not yet been “cured” in American society. Detailed by the Associated Press:
“Racism, we are not cured of it,” Obama said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
When someone in a position of governmental authority talks about curing a social problem, it raises a number of questions. Chief among them is: what is meant by cure? Are we talking about somehow neutralizing racist thought? If so, how do we go about doing that? How does government prevent people from thinking certain thoughts?
If by “cure,”we instead mean neutralizing the unjust effects of racist actions, then we might be on to something. Indeed, the governmental response to the crimes committed in Charleston has been appropriate. The perpetrator was identified, pursued, arrested, and will be tried and held accountable if found guilty.
In the past, such justice has been allusive for victims of racially motivated crimes. There’s little government can or should do to prevent people from thinking bad thoughts. But when those thoughts metastasize into rights-violating action, the cure is a color-blind justice system.