19 March 2008

Moving Beyond Black and White- Obama and Race

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave one of the most important and articulate speeches about race that I think our country has ever seen. I've been waffling between Clinton and Obama, unable and unwilling to decide which I really, really preferred. Yesterday's speech--all thirty-eight minutes of it--convinced me, unequivocally that Obama needs to be our candidate, our president.

The speech was an exercise in rhetorical brilliance. And yet, it was a dangerous speech for him to give. Responding to recently uncovered footage of his pastor giving what might be called "un-American" or "racist" sermons, he refused to disown the pastor even while he condemned what he said:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

In this speech, he put in articulate and bluntly honest terms the racial problems that our country still faces, the problems that underlie the tensions we still feel. He quoted Faulkner, reminding us that "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." And he's right. For all of our reluctance to use the "N" word, racism is still a fundamental part of our national consciousness. It is ingrained in our American psyche. We still speak in the terms of "us" and "them," even those of us whose fore bearers were no more considered "white" when they first stepped off of a boat than illegal immigrants are now.

What I found powerful about Obama's speech was that he refused to turn race into an issue easily dichotomized. Instead, he uncovered and made explicit the underlying issues that still haunt us. He openly discussed the residual anger in the African American community for slavery, for discrimination, for being kept in the position of second-class citizens for hundreds of years:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

But he also exposed the residual anger of white Americans--

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

It's an anger that underlies the fear of "the race card"--as though race can be quantified and contained in such simple terms. It's the anger that underlies my own family's racism-- the discussions of "those welfare mothers" who refuse to work and buy Cadillacs and expensive clothing for their ever-increasing number of children, the anger over affirmative action, the fear of losing some privilege or position to someone who couldn't possibly deserve it.

But Obama's speech was a dangerous one for him to make. When he could have just as easily distanced himself from the entire issue, could have continued to ignore the rhetoric about race and racism that continues to build around this campaign, he addressed it head on. By exposing the black community's anger--and by arguing that this anger can be unproductive--he risked angering the black community, being seen as a traitor. By calling out the often unspoken anger of certain segments of white America, he risked distancing those voters as well. By moving beyond simplistic divisions between black and white, he exposed the gray area--he exposed the ways that these divisive ways of thinking, talking, and acting about race keep us all at a standstill and keep the entire country stagnant. He challenged Americans of all colors to see that the only way to begin healing a wound that began when the first slave ship alighted on our shores is to deal with the complexities of the issue:

It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

But to do this it means that all Americans need to re-examine their own preconceived notions, develop a deep understanding of the historical traumas of those not like themselves, and to practice a form of empathy unlike any we have ever experienced in the more than two hundred years of the Union. It means letting go of angers and fears that define our very existence. It means recognizing that what your parents and friends taught you about how to look at and judge others may not be right. It means understanding that humanity overrides any skin color and that we are all in the same, sinking ship.

It's a job that seems monumental and impossible, but Obama gives us a first step:

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

His speech was elegant, articulate, dangerous, and beautiful in its complexity. It will not go over well. It was too long. It lacked the absolutes that Americans like from their politicians. It quoted an author that I'm sure our current president can't even read without Cliff's Notes and a cheat sheet. The signs are already there--on the NY Times Opinion Page, some readers seem angry that he refused to outright reject his pastor. They think it a grave sin that anyone (especially a black man) should speak so vehemently against white Americans, and that anyone who associates with such a man must be just like him. It's an understandable argument, but I find it odd that no one suggested that all Catholics were pedophiles when certain priests were outed and when the Church continued to cover up the issue. It seems that racism is the bigger, harder to erase and more contaminating sin.

And that, to me, is sad. Our country deserves someone who can think so complexly, who can articulate those complexities so articulately, who is willing to put a campaign in jeopardy in order to say something that needs to be said. Who is willing to call us all out in order to help us move on. I don't know if our country is or will ever be ready for it.


Chandira said...

Well, I guess at lest it knocks the whole thing on the head about him being Muslim, doesn't it? ;-)

Yes, great speech, and I'm glad you decided on the right candidate for the job at last. :-)

LD said...

But even if he were, why would that need to matter. Islam is not only fundamental Islam any more than Christianity is only fundamental.

Mad Grad Mom said...

Wow, great minds think alike about posts today, huh?

What I particularly like about this speech is it not only does he reject what seems like extremism to whites but validates that particular African American experience. His assertion that he "can no more disown [Wright] that [he] can his white grandmother" recognizes that Wright's experience is real and that he, too, knows racism without the same kind of fervor that turns whites off of Wright's speech.

While Wright's speech makes lots of people uncomfortable and while there are some things he said that I slightly disagree with, by and large (and whether Obama outright rejected it or not), both Wright and Obama have opened up an important discussion for America and it's a reality that white America needs to hear and accept.

Tammy said...

My hope is that it will make people stop and think rather than react with anger and malice.

We need someone to open our minds to the thoughts we have been hiding for such a long time. Someone who is not afraid to stand up and not be afraid of being knocked down.

Jason said...

Great analysis of a great speech. My thoughts is that Obama greatly overestimated the general public to actually listen to the whole thing rather than just a soundbyte here and there with lame analogy by lame comentators. This is a country with a large population who do not get complexity. They voted for George Bush twice, about the most simplistic, black and white thinker (if you could even call him a thinker) there ever was. And people are so hung up on this pastor who didn't say anything more radical than you might here in a Public Enemy song. If this one stupid non-scandal sinks his candidacy, I will continue to be embarrassed for my country.

jeffersonian said...

Unfortunately, the kind of radical equality described seldom appeals to modern Americans.

I'm convinced that in order to approach a meaningful equality, we must be willing to forgive the past. All too often, supremacists of one kind or another cloak themselves in a call for equality while seeking retroactive justice. It's fairly typical to favor the underdog and want to right imbalances, but until someone voluntarily gives up their share of the moral spoils of victimization, little progress can be made.

As Obama described, there is a cycle of resentment that comes when we canonize the past and allow it to dominate us. By putting history in context with our lives, we come to a startling realization: the suffering of the past is of no greater significance than that of today's. It's humanity, not history, that gives meaning to our sorrow.