Don’t call me a racist! (thoughts on Obama’s speech)
As a freelance missionary, a social critic, and (I should add) a self-professed moral failure; I watched Obama’s speech this morning with great interest. I couldn’t help but thinking to myself that I was witnessing a profound moment in history, something that would have been unthinkable 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. I’ve never publicly endorsed a political candidate and I don’t plan on doing so here (to be quite frank, I have some serious disagreements with the Senator on a variety of issues), but what I heard in the Senator’s speech this morning was a man who is both caucasian and African-American (howbeit African-American in a non-traditional sense) pleading with members of both races to look past their prejudices, abandon the politics of discontentment, and unite under a common vision for the good of all.
As a white American evangelical, I’ve clearly grown up on one side of the discontentment divide. My politically conservative Christian background has taught met to emphasize personal responsibility in the political sphere, but eschew racism in the private sphere. The way this usually translates on the white side of the discontentment divide goes something like this:
“I’m sick and tired of black people (and other minorities) getting special treatment just because of what my ancestors did. If there are racial inequalities in our country between black people and white people, then it’s their own damn fault and-for the love of God-I’m sick and tired of being called a racist!”
Given my racial and socio-economic status, I can understand this sentiment very well and, ironically, Obama seems to understand it too, which is why he didn’t condemn this type of thinking outright in his speech. Rather than pointing his finger at white discontentment as an example of systemic racism, Obama put the blame on special interest groups and corporate greed. While one can easily disagree with this analysis, depending on whatever side of the political divide you find yourself on, it’s not so easy to dismiss the fact that, for the first time that I can think of, a formidable black candidate for the President of the United States has officially given voice to white discontentment-without using the wrath provoking word “racist.” To further drive home the point, Obama spoke of his white grandmother who loved him, cared for him, played a significant role in raising him, and occasionally gave voice to racially insensitive stereotypes. Obama’s point, which was in no uncertain terms relevant to the current Jeremiah Wright debacle, is simply this: people are more complex than than the sum of their racial discontentment.
The hallmark of the speech for me was when Obama addressed the history behind the current economic and achievement divide between black people and white people in the U.S.A. I’ve known for a while that the violence in the ghettos, the breakdown of the black family, and whatever other deficiencies currently present in black culture aren’t simply a matter of black inferiority verses white superiority, but there are historical factors that have produced the situation today. The problem has been that I’ve never been able to explain these historical factors to the average discontented white male (including myself). This is where the speech struck the deepest note in me:
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘the past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustices in this country, but we do need to remind ourelves that so many of the disparities that exist between the African American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were and are inferior schools. We still haven’t fixed them 50 years after Brown Vs Board of Education and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between todays black and white students. Legalized discrimination , where blacks were prevented often through violence from owning property, where loans were not granted to African American business owners, where black home owners could not access FHA mortgages, where blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or the fire department, meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps to explain the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family contributed to the erosion of black families, a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic service in so many urban black neighborhoods, parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick up, building code enforcement, all helped create a cycle of violence, blight, and neglect that continues to haunt us.
In sum, I didn’t agree with everything that Obama had to say in his speech(especially when it came to his one- sided statement putting the blame solely on radical Islam and none on Israel for the current problems in the Middle East), but, on the whole, I think it was an important speech that everyone in our nation needs to hear. Rather than just playing to one side of the racial divide, Obama challenged white people to understand the roots of black anger and black people to get past their anger and take personal responsibility for their lives. Perhaps there really is something to this “removing the plank from your own eye” business a humble carpenter from Nazareth stated so beautifully 2,000 years ago.