Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wake of the incredibly divisive ‘not guilty’ verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida, US President Barack Obama has spoken out on being a black man in America.

The New York Times said that:

 “After days of angry protests and mounting public pressure, President Obama summoned five of his closest advisers to the Oval Office on Thursday evening. It was time, he told them, for him to speak to the nation about the Trayvon Martin verdict, and he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to say.

For the next 15 minutes, according to a senior aide, Mr. Obama spoke without interruption, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin in a gated Florida neighborhood.”

It can be difficult for a political leader to gauge when and where to speak – when does a situation need the spotlight that goes with adding the President’s – or Prime Minister’s – voice?

It has been particularly difficult for President Obama– the first Black President of the USA, who clearly – and rightly, in my opinion – does not want his Presidency to be defined by the colour of his skin. But he is still a black man, with a black man’s experiences, and bearing the burden – and privilege – of the expectations of his community. And despite what many people would like to fool themselves into believing, race is still a problem in America – so when does he speak and what does he say?

He had to distance himself from comments about race made by his former pastor, his criticisms of police for arresting black Harvard professor Henry Gates landed him in the middle of controversy, and he has been under repeated attack from broadcaster Tavis Smiley and university professor Cornel West for not adequately addressing the issue of poverty in the black community.

So, it is not surprising that his latest comments have also been met with sharply different reactions.

Back at home, the same question faces our own Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. When should she speak? What Portia Simpson Millershould she say?

Many Jamaicans believe that the PM does not speak enough publicly on important national issues. When I started to tweet comments she made in Parliament about the track and field drug testing issue, there were several immediate reactions, questioning why she was commenting on this issue when she had not done so on others.

To be fair, the Prime Minister has retained the sports portfolio. The issue falls within her direct sphere of responsibility. Her explanation for not speaking more on issues like crime and the economy is that she has appointed portfolio Ministers and allows them space to work.

Not everybody is convinced, as evidenced by the hash tag #whereisportia which surfaced on twitter months ago.

Is there a fine line to walk between allowing Cabinet Ministers room to speak and knowing when it is time for the Prime Minister, primus inter pares (first among equals)  in the Westminster system of government to take over? Clearly, there is. Has Prime Minister Simpson-Miller mastered the art of walking that fine line?

I was critical of one of her national broadcasts, which I wrote about here. On this wider issue, I’m going to reserve judgment for a while longer. But tell me what you think!

 

Advertisements