In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Value, and Values, of Barack: Racial Acuity

Obama spoke today, and it was indeed unique. The topic was race, and his honesty was encouraging. I will not say much before pasting an excerpt of his speech and a link to the video of it, but will note that what stood out most was his ability and authority, as a man of mixed race, to speak to both the black and white community--and with a candor and conviction that was heartening, and so necessary in our country, divided racially and otherwise as we are under the surface. To hear a leader so moved by issues that politicians seem alternately blind and powerless towards, was in itself moving; and it was not simply moving because inspiration is nice, but because people need to be moved in order to move (i.e., to progress)--and clearly, with race, there is much need for progress still; or, as he put it in his speech, there is much need for us to continue the work of perfecting our union.

Lastly, I would note that this is the first of what I intend to be a series of pieces on the values of Obama. The word itself--values--has been too commonly reserved for the political right, and in a way that limits the meaning of the word to a single religious community's singular, narrow interpretation. The Religious Right's use of the word, in fact, has not only cheapened it for those outside of the Religious Right, it has gone so far as to strip the value for those within, removing phrases such as income equality, disease reduction, and shared humanity from the idea of "values."

Below, I pasted an excerpt from the text of Obama's speech, wherein he speaks directly to the black and white communities in the ways I mentioned above. I would urge you to read and consider the capacity such thinking has to propel our country in correcting directions. The link to the video follows the speech, and is worth watching in its entirety, as it is filled with concepts that I personally have not heard many politicians delve into in near this depth, with near this focus.

"In fact, 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'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.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments 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. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

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 taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American - and yes, conservative - notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

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 the 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.

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 discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

The speech in full (around 20-30 (worthwhile) minutes):

Above photo credit: Picture from Obama's Flickr page, some rights reserved.

Check out the following line noted here in the blog on Obama's website. It's a short note this Pennsylvania guy sent in to the Obama campaign about the reaction of his "Republican, Vietnam veteran" father to the above speech:

"After today's speech, I got a call from my dad -- a retired, gun-owning Republican Vietnam veteran who still lives in the little broken down central PA town where I grew up. He happened to turn on the tv today and saw the speech. Immediately afterward he called me at work (which is unprecedented) to say that he was moved and had decided to give Obama $100. That's a lot of money for my dad.

Today's speech was supposed to inspire people like me -- a liberal, thirtysomething lawyer, Philadelphia resident, and longstanding member of the Obama bandwagon -- but when it gets to my dad, you're really on to something. He's McCain's base.

Keep up the good work,


Update 2: I should add that I'm not entirely sure what to make of Obama's now-former pastor's various statements/sermons; they have been troubling in ways. Although, I do feel Obama's nuanced approach to the issues with Rev. Wright in the above speech really speak to the problems frankly; there still may be some things that will need to be re-explained or more thoroughly addressed later, but he appears to have taken the issue pretty head-on. I also think that some important points about Rev. Wright are addressed well in this short, but good Washington Post article on the subject. On a related note, having been quite religious in past days, I do feel that Obama's awareness of issues related to faith and its proper relationship to politics is incredibly keen, as demonstrated in this speech he gave on faith in 2006.

Update 3: This morning's Washington Post (March 23rd) was lit up with articles about the Wright issue. There were two I thought especially good, here and here. The first is by a woman who describes herself as a "clenched-fist-pumping black nationalist" in the '70s and '80s, whose "words were as fiery as the Rev. Wright's." She says that she can understand Obama's unwillingness to totally "disown" Wright (although Obama unequivocally speaks against numerous things Wright said), and she goes on to say: "I understand this sentiment. I have not removed myself from people in my community who continue to rely on Wright-speak. We simply engage in debates. But their numbers are diminishing. More and more African Americans are coming to understand what we have in common with other Americans." The latter of the two articles talked, satirically at times, about how the general public would do well to remember that Obama is also half-white. In the print version of the paper, that article used a picture with him and his white grandparents (who, with his white mother, raised him, as he only saw his father a few times); however, it is worth pointing out that Obama's racial perspective must have also been significantly shaped by more than simply the African-American and Caucasian worlds, considering the Indonesian step-father he had, his half-Indonesian sister, and the years of his childhood spent in Indonesia and the not-homogeneous state of Hawaii. See a handful of pictures of him and his family members here.

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