Eric Garner I can't breathe protests
Logan Browning, with duct tape over her mouth, joins demonstrators protesting against police violence in Hollywood, California Reuters

Whenever the topic of race comes up, it's always a bit like that Seinfeld episode when Elaine's dating a guy Jerry thinks is black.

"Should we be talking about this?" George asks. "I think it's OK," Elaine says. "I really don't think we're supposed to be talking about this," says George.

That was 16 years ago and it still resonates. White people are never quite sure what they can talk about and what they can't. Unlike Chris Rock, a black comedian who two years earlier had gone on an amazing tirade.

"There's a lot of racism going on. Who's more racist, black people or white people? It's black people! You know why? Because we hate black people, too! Everything white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people. ... And there's two sides, there's black people and there's niggas. The niggas have got to go. ... I love black people, but I hate niggas!" he said.

At the end of the routine, he jokes about the media being to blame. "When I go the money machine at night; I ain't looking over my back for the media -- I'm looking for niggas!" The mostly black crowd howled.

President Obama has been asked repeatedly of late if there has been "progress." Note the irony in that. America's first black president being asked about whether the United States has made progress on racism. And think about this: When Mr. Obama leaves office, every kid under 8 years old -- millions and millions of them -- will never have known an America without a black president.

Mr. Obama's answers to the question of progress, while leaving a bit to be desired, are some of the most honest of his presidency, as they should be for a half-white, half-black man in America.

He talks about distrust between minority communities and law enforcement (a very real thing), while also condemning the rampant rioting and looting that has gone on since white policemen were cleared of wrongdoing in the deaths of unarmed black Americans, including a 12-year-old boy who was holding a toy gun. He says the problem "will not be solved overnight," that racism "is deeply rooted in our society... deeply rooted in our history." All true.

And he's absolutely spot on when he says: "If you talk to your parents, your grandparents, they'll tell you things are better. Not good in some cases, but better." Not a ringing endorsement of change, exactly, but honest and reflective of reality.

ferguson mike brown
The town of Ferguson has also witnessed huge protests following the death of Michael Brown and the aquittal of his killer, Darren Wilson Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Unfortunately, many feel Mr. Obama has fallen short of his promise to deliver a post-racial presidency (of course, as in so many other ways, Candidate Obama over-promised there). More than half, 53%, think race relations are worse now than before he took office, according to a Bloomberg poll. Just 9% said it had gotten "a little" or "a lot" better.

For the record, the police officers in the cases that left three unarmed blacks dead should all have proceeded to trial - all of them. Secret grand juries deciding not to charge government agents - as police officers no doubt are - is un-American. And, frankly, scary. Pretty much everybody agrees.

But the good thing is: America's talking about it. Openly. Sometimes even joking about it. Not the deaths, not the bad cops, but racism itself. For most white Americans, racism is a thing of the past - at least for them. They (we) didn't enslave blacks, that was someone else a long, long time ago. Many hipster teens now listen to rap music, and even sing out the multiple N words in, say, a Jay Z song. Most whites not only want to move forward, they already have.

And Chris Rock just this month has a special take on that point, on racism and progress, which he calls "nonsense," at least in the sense that blacks have progressed.

"There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. ... So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he's the first black person that is qualified to be president. That's not black progress. That's white progress," he said.

And for once, we can give a little chuckle - and not feel like this is something we really shouldn't be talking about.

Joseph Curl is one of America's most forthright and esteemed political experts, with a body of work including extensive front-line stints in both Washington and New York.

He is currently editing the Drudge Report, arguably the world's most influential news aggregator.