If Not Obama, Who?

Impossible to tell at this point how successful Obama was with the twin purposes of his big race speech on Tuesday, which were  to 1) distance himself from the black racism and outright nuttiness of Rev. Wright (The U. S. invented AIDS to keep blacks down?) and 2) further an honest discussion of race in this country.

As for Goal #1, he was already running behind in Pennsylvania and remains behind (I think he’ll lose by at least 10 points), so we don’t know the impact there. Important to remember that of the millions who hear about the speech, the vast majority will never read or hear it entirely, so much depends on which sound bites get bounced around the most. If I was Obama’s staff, I’d be buying ads in Pennsylvania using some key graphs from the speech, such as:

“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. “

That’s great stuff: Not just well said but uncomfortably true. I have never heard those sentiments expressed by any black leader.

As for Goal #2, I think we’re looking at a longer-term impact, and it’s not something Obama can accomplish alone. If the country is still–still–not ready to face reality about race, it won’t despite all the eloquence and good sense in the world.

But I would ask this question: If we’re not going to follow Obama’s lead on the race question, when, if ever, will we face it, and who, if not he, will show us how to talk about it?  Obama is uniquely situated to serve as a middleman in this discussion. Older black leaders like Louis Farrakhan Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are far too polarizing; their constituency is almost entirely black, and they’re far too invested in white-bashing to build any bridges now.

On the other hand, it’s easy to think of certain prominent blacks who are simply too much creatures of the white establishment to play the role Obama’s trying to play. A Condeleeza Rice, for example, or a Colin Powell is just too removed from the everyday reality of black life, and by that I don’t mean simply that they have served in Republican administrations. Brilliant as they both are, neither could ever utter Obama’s brave words with any credibility:

“Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity [Wright’s church] embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

No, only Obama and a few others like him (perhaps Newark Mayor Cory Booker) can play the role that history and his ambition have thrust upon him. He’s uniquely situated to mediate this much-needed dialogue. If the rest of us care to take part, it’s time to step up and say so.


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