Commentary: President Obama – Turn Empathy Into Action

Will Obama “flip the script” in his state of the union address?

Posted: 01/28/2014 09:00 AM EST

Tonight, President Obama will once again deliver his State of the Union address, outlining his view of America’s future, challenges and triumphs. And it may sound a bit familiar.

The State of the Union script tends to have a vague sameness. The economy is likely to be name-checked, as well as our war-weary military apparatus. Health care and education should also get some lip service. But will President Obama “flip the script” this time around? Will he finally put on the table the issues that have, at times, seemed closest to his heart?

In the wake of the outrageous verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the president found it hard to hide his emotions, speaking frankly about the disappointment and anger that followed the case. “A lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush,” Obama said, indicating that the case was more about racial profiling than shooter George Zimmerman’s plea of self-defense. “Using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.”

The president has also spoken eloquently about wanting to provide a path to citizenship for our nation’s immigrants and their children, even visiting with fasters from Fast for Families who protested Congress’ inaction on immigration reform and the families that have been torn apart by deportation under his administration. In a recent New Yorker interview, the president acknowledged the racial disparities in marijuana arrests, pointing out that “middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do. And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”

On these issues of race, equality and citizenship, President Obama has repeatedly expressed all the right emotions: outrage, grief, concern. But what about the right actions? We don’t need more words; we need a plan to be executed. The State of the Union is the perfect place to start.

He could address police racial profiling and how banal encounters turn life-altering simply because Black boys are assumed a threat by virtue of their existence. He could propose ways to dismantle policies such as “Stop and Frisk,” for example, by calling on Congress to pass legislation to stop racial profiling by law enforcement. On the matter of comprehensive immigration reform, millions of families will look to the State of the Union for a concrete strategy from President Obama for ending his administration’s record level of deportations and implementing a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans.

With studies confirming the president’s assertions about our country’s racially biased War on Drugs — fueled largely by minor marijuana-related arrests, with African-Americans disproportionately arrested — he could call for action beyond the significant steps he’s taken to lessen crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities. And while he has created an Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, he must do something to stop the closing of schools and the labeling of our children as failures, as well as ensure increased resources for public schools.

It’s not that the issues the president will likely touch on during the State of the Union aren’t important. But these other issues are equally important and deserve to be part of our national discussion – with tangible actions to back up the talk. During this final term in office, President Obama has the opportunity to make what has touched his heart more than an answer to a reporter’s questions. He can turn his words of empathy into action.

Judith Browne Dianis is the co- director of Advancement Project.

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(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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