Friday, March 21, 2008

Obama's speech: can Americans deal with it?

I've been reading a lot of commentary these past few days about Obama's recent speech on race in America. This analysis from Time Magazine (The Origin of Obama's Pastor Problem)explains the issue very well, I think:
...In his speech, he said he disagreed with Wright strongly, and yet he didn't leave the church (or even criticize his pastor until Wright's sermons became a campaign issue). He didn't explain why he stayed, but by trying to show black and white resentment as the backdrop for Wright's comments, Obama suggested that his response to controversy isn't to walk out of the room but to try to understand what's fueling the fire. He also drew a distinction between political advice and spiritual guidance, arguing that many Americans know what it's like to disagree with something their pastor or priest or rabbi says.

By asking voters to understand the context of Wright's anger, though, Obama is counting on voters to accept nuance in an arena that almost always rewards simplicity over complexity. Politicians tend to offer deliberately banal choices: Either we move forward or we fall backward, either we let the economy falter or we help it grow, either we succumb to our enemies or we defeat them — the choice is up to you, America! Obama's formulation was different. Explicitly asking Americans to grapple with racial divisions and then transcend them — that's a bolder, riskier request.

The italics here are mine. These words -- understanding, distinction, context, nuance -- oh, if only these were things that the majority of Americans did with any regularity! I don't mean to sound like a snob, but it seems lately like Americans are very simplistic, very black and white. Either it's good, or it's bad -- there is nothing in between.

I've worked for many years in the inner city of Boston with mainly middle- and low-income African Americans who live there. I know that the things that Rev. Wright said are things that African Americans I know think and say. They feel discriminated against. They feel like white America is trying to destroy them. They even think that the AIDS epidemic was created to destroy African Americans. Look, many of these folks are the descendants of slaves. They've lived through hell. We can't even begin to understand their histories. But what does all this have to do with Obama? Why does this impact his presidential chances at all?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say: Americans can be smarter than the press thinks they are. Americans can draw distinctions, can look at things in context, can accept nuance. Obama will survive this. I think he can. I hope he can.

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