I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more thoughtful, more compassionate, more reasoned, more intellectual summary of race in America. It’s cheesy to say, but he really seems to me like the new MLK. …Except he’s running for President. …And he just might win.
…I want to elaborate a little more. You may have noticed that I’m pretty interested in issues of race in America. I just really liked what Obama said about how white people have to own and take some responsibility for that legacy; as a white person, I’m good and ready to begin the cleanup work after the sins of my fathers. I also liked how he spoke of personal responsibility… it was an excellent, two-pronged approach saying that we must not blame others for our own failings, but at the same time be compassionate towards others’ problems and ensure that we are doing the best we can to help, even if it means making sacrifices.
And, of course, having something of an economic bent, here, I appreciated him saying that achievement in America is not some kind of zero-sum game, where affirmative action means fewer jobs for white people. I appreciated him adding nuance and candor to an issue so prone to high-decibel fighting and rhetorical extremes. I appreciated him breaking some serious political rules by a) not immediately writing off a campaign liability (although not dumping his old preacher is kind of a convenient way to keep his Christianity in the news), and b) bringing out the black dog of slavery that so often gets white people defensive over the fact that they were not responsible for their ancestor’s crimes. That’s true, but we all ought to help in correcting is lasting legacy of harm. Obama taking that head-on took serious guts. He deserves a Tina Medal for that alone.
As a white person, I strongly believe that we ought to go into those neglected black communities, find out what they need, and go about giving it to them. Getting on your Bill Cosby high horse and saying black people ought to fix their problems themselves will not get a single school fixed, a single gang broken up, or bring a single job to an impoverished neighborhood in need of occupation for young idle hands. And Barack Obama is right when he says that black Americans are not in this boat alone… just as some blacks have been able to escape the treacherous maw of American institutionalized racism, whites and Hispanics and Asians and American Indians and people of all colors have slipped into that pit, the dregs of society, where we unfortunately cast them off by assuming that their problem is of their own making.
So I’ve never understood why white people can get so defensive about these things (see Stephen Colbert’s brilliant “I don’t see race” routine), because helping heal the lasting harm from the original injustice of slavery sounds like a great national project for us to embark upon. Besides that, it is lazy and selfish to assume that black America can “fix itself” with some uplifting speeches and scornful screeds aimed at getting them to recognize the pit they’re in, and I know that a handful of examples of rich black entrepreneurs, or maybe twenty or a hundred or a thousand of them, will not change the reality of Baltimore or Newark or Harlem.
At the same time, like Obama, I don’t mean for that to be a message of polarization. In fact, such a project to fix our nation’s crumbling inner cities–often, as the stereotype goes, heavily black in population, owing in part to that original injustice–would be a great way to bring the country together. So I liked that something like what I’ve always felt was necessary just came from the lips of a serious Presidential candidate, and one who never ran as “the black guy.”
(I don’t want you to think that I’m speaking for Obama… he’s trying to speak for everybody, and the fact that he succeeds so well is part of what I like so much about him. This is just my perspective, as a white person who feels bad about injustice in your country, and neither you nor Obama need to share it. I was just extremely happy to hear something so much like the way I’ve always felt in a “make-or-break” speech by such a high-profile politician.)
So, he was willing to touch a long-standing third rail of American politics–the toxic legacy of slavery–and say rightfully that America is a never-perfect mix of good and bad, and we can never fix what’s wrong without acknowledging what’s wrong, and–where Rev. Wright failed–acknowledging what’s good. I felt something like that when I took US history at the Portland community college, and read the introduction to our new US history textbook (“Give Me Liberty”, and I highly recommend it); I suddenly realized that I didn’t have to choose between icons like Washington and Lincoln and activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. I realized they were all activists, all rabble-rousers, all great thinkers in a long-running lineage of upsetting the status quo. America, in search of the elusive prize of freedom, has always been shedding its skin and finding new ways to come, step by step, closer to that grand dream.
I certainly hope this speech–and a coming-clean week for Obama, where he dumps on us everything that’s been bugging him–helps his candidacy. But thank you, Senator, for letting me–if only for forty minutes on YouTube, for now–live my American dream.
Let’s keep it going.