If Barack Obama fails to receive the Democratic presidential nomination – or if he does receive the nomination and is beaten by John McCain in the fall – it won't be because America isn't ready for
a black president. As I've said in a previous post, I think that the notion that America isn't "ready" for an African-American president or a woman president is inane. No, if there's something that America doesn't appear to be "ready" for, it's is an honest, in-depth discussion of race.
Earlier this week, Sen. Obama delivered what is being rightly hailed as one of the most significant speeches on race that has ever been delivered by a major political figure. For many of us, the speech came as a welcome dose of eloquence and candor on a subject that too often is handled in the most superficial, divisive manner. For those of us who support Sen. Obama's candidacy, it was only the most recent example of why we so strongly desire this man to become president. As John Stewart said the following day, in words that were (perhaps unwittingly) echoed by Governor Bill Richardson in today's endorsement of Sen. Obama, "at 11:00 on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race, as though they were adults."
Still, not everyone was swayed. Glutton for punishment that I am, I've spent the past few days perusing the comments on blogs and news sites ranging from the Post and Times to God's Politics, and while much of the reaction to the speech was favorable, I read a lot of comments from Americans who continue to express chagrin over the speech and the controversy that precipitated it. Some said that Sen. Obama did not go far enough in distancing himself from the inflammatory comments of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while others questioned the existence of
institutionalized racism in 21st century America. The comments that annoyed me the most were the ones from people who crowed over the failure of the Obama campaign's alleged goal of "transcending race."
Incidentally, I'm not even referring to the posters who are obvious nutcases, the fringe types who do nothing but write in all caps and incite flame wars. I'm talking about people who for the most part framed their arguments reasonably, intelligently, and civilly, from principled conservatives to proud supporters of Hillary Clinton, from committed Christians to self-proclaimed atheists.
What frustrated me about reactions like these was that so many of them quickly shoved the discussion out of the realm of substance and subtlety and back into the harsh glare of generalization,
mischaracterization, and pedantry. Sen. Obama has never expressed a desire to "transcend" race – another inane notion – and the issues he raised in his speech are far larger and more important than his relationship with Rev. Wright. Need proof of institutionalized racism? Take a look at the income disparity between white and black workers , as well as any number of other indicators that show correlations between inequity, lack of opportunity, and race.
For over a decade, I've lived and/or worked in a majority African-American city. Much of that time has been spent working for nonprofit organizations on issues deeply intertwined with race, such as workforce development, ex-offender re-entry, and access to health care. In boardrooms and neighborhood centers, prisons and churches, schools community clinics, I've participated in countless conversations in which race was either discussed overtly, or else was felt as a strong undercurrent in the discussions. Some of those conversations have been quite heated. Many of them featured remarks by African-Americans and white people alike that, excerpted and de-contextualized, would sound quite shocking, even abhorrent, to the average listener. I've left such forums feeling angry, or proud, or ashamed, or hopeful, or, often, a mixture thereof.
I don't feel that my participation in such dialogues has made me more of an authority on race than anybody else, or that they've enabled me to "transcend" race in any way. In fact, they've caused me to see racial fault lines all the more clearly, and to realize that mere good intentions are next to useless in dealing with issues of race in any meaningful fashion. Once you come face to face with your own racial biases, it's sort of hard to go back to pretending that racism as a pervasive, pernicious force doesn't exist in our society – or within us. Race in America cannot be "transcended," not by a speech, not by a million of them. It's a reality that's deeply rooted in the
politics, policies, and cultural consciousness of this country, and once you learn to recognize it, it's hard to go on believing that it can be wished away. And I'm willing to bet that any black legislator who attends a historically black church and who used to be a community organizer in a largely black city knows that all too well.
So if race and racism can't be transcended, what can we do about it?
I think that asking questions is a good place to begin. For example, instead of proclaiming that Barack Obama should have denounced Rev. Wright more vigorously, why not ask why he didn't? Instead of labeling Trinity United Church of Christ as racist or un-American, why not ask about why one might hear rage coming from the pulpit of a black church? For my liberal friends who bristle at any criticism of
affirmative action policies, instead of immediately painting the critics as racists, why not ask how we can address racial and other disparities in more sophisticated ways?
In an intelligent and straightforward post on the God's Politics blog, Brian McClaren offers us a way to get the conversation started, using Sen. Obama's speech as a starting point.
The best case scenario would be for mixed groups to read and discuss
the speech together – gathering a group of friends from work or a
sports team or a neighborhood or church. Three questions would guide
this kind of dialogue:
What can we learn about America?
What can we learn about people of other races?
What can we learn about ourselves?
My favorite part of Sen. Obama's speech was when he admonished Rev. Wright not for expressing anger over racism in America, but for doing so in a way that gave in to hopelessness and bitterness. And though my 10th grade English teacher warned her students to never close with a quote (or end a sentence with a preposition), that's what I'll end this post with.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about
racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as
if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made
it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the
land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and
poor, young and old – is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what
we know – what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true
genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the
audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.