We, I believe, can change things for the better in America. We can start by putting aside our bigotry and prejudices and having open, honest dialogue about what is wrong in America. And, Heaven help us — we’ve certainly got plenty to talk about.
Perhaps you missed the live coverage yesterday, March 18th 2008, of Barack Obama’s speech on social and economic divisions in America — his “race” speech. I didn’t. I was home on Spring Break from teaching, so I was able to watch it in its entirety. I expected to be impressed, and I was. It was brilliant! But then, Obama is well-known for his oratory. I, however, was more impressed with his message than his delivery.
The divisions Obama talked about were not limited to just to race and ethnicity, but these were at the core of his message in, what political commentators all day and again this morning are calling the most important speech of his political career. Given the media fervor his former pastor’s recent fiery sermon damning America ignited, Obama reportedly had no choice but to confront questions concerning what he truly believes. But he said in an interview to ABC’s Terry Moran after his speech that he has anticipated having to make this speech for a long time. In doing so now, it remains to be seen whether he has won any converts, but he almost certainly has reassured his large and growing base of supporters — intel- lectuals, young voters and, yes of course, African Americans. But whether you’re for him or against him, had you heard the speech and you’re honest with yourself, you would have to give him high points for political courage.
The Senator began his speech by reviewing recent events that had led him to make the speech at this time. “On one end of the spectrum,” he said, “we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wild and wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; and that rightly offends whites and blacks alike.”
He continued by attempting to distance himself from his former pastor’s anti-Semitism and anger, saying: “Remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” With these words and others, saying that only in America could someone with his background arrive at this time and place as a candidate for President, I think Obama did clarify what he believes about America.
He admitted hearing some “controversial” remarks while sitting in the pews of Trinity United Church of Christ saying, “Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.” But Obama did not disown his friend and former pastor, liking him to family saying, “Reverend Wright, as imperfect as he may be, has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conver- sations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. 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 her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
The senator then went on to say what we should be talking about instead of “snippets” of Reverend Wright’s sermons. He said we need to be talking about the “racial stalemate” we’ve been stuck in for years. He said, “”Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”
He attempted to help us all understand why Wright and many African Americans are so angry, saying, “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor have the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. 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.”
But he acknowledged and recognized reasons that whites are angry too. “A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. 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 handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. When they hear 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 neighbor- hoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resent- ments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition.”
Then he explained why he believes he is uniquely suited to bring about the reconciliation this country so badly needs. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya,” he said, “and a white woman from Kansas. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.”
He said that America can change… together, we can change it. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” he said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had 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 (APPLAUSE) Latino and Asian, rich, poor, young, 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.”
Addressing the African American and White communities separately, he spoke to what we can do to help fix the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. “For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means also taking full responsibility for own lives. In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimi- nation, while less overt than in the past – that these things are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds.”
The Senator then spoke to us all, especially the media, saying, “We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’…This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.”
Truly, the Democratic primary race has devolved into one being decided by sexism and racism. As I compare what Senator Clinton and Senator Obama stand for and advocate, I don’t see all that much difference between them. However, in a recent Newsweek magazine article titled, “The Deep Blue Divide,” I read where after the recent primary here in Texas, 91 percent of Clinton supporters said that they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee and 87 percent of Obama supporters said they would be dissatis- fied with Clinton. Nationally, according to the Newsweek article, one-fourth of Clinton supporters say they would rather vote for John McCain than Barack Obama. So, the old adage must be correct: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.
If you’ve read this far, you must care as much as I do about the future of this great country of ours. We, I believe, can change things for the better. We can start, as Senator Obama did yesterday, by putting aside our bigotry and prejudices and having open, honest dialogue about what is wrong in America. Then we can elect a leader who understands both sides of the racial divide, believes that we can recover from it, and possesses the qualities of leadership we so badly need these days. May God bless America… once again.
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