Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday morning regarding lingering racial tensions in the United States was the political equivalent of refusing to ignore the proverbial pink elephant any longer.
“Contrary to the claims of some of my critics – black and white – I have never been so na’ve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy,” Obama said in his speech. “It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.”
Regardless of whether or not I support Obama’s politics, want to vote for him or even if I believe he was the predominant author of the speech is irrelevant. He addressed the issue of race – one that so many in the United States like to pretend was settled with the civil rights movement – in a mature and refreshing way.
In the land of political baby talk that all too often pits people and issues against one another in a black-and-white fashion (pun totally intended), Obama’s speech addressed the complexities of race and racism in a social context, giving heed to the concerns of both black and white people.
He cited slavery and the constitutional protections of it as the “original sin” in racial tensions and discussed the continuing anger and bitterness among some black people whose hearts are still not healed from the racial injustices of the civil rights era.
“A similar anger exists within segments of the white community,” he also said, noting the tension many white people feel about issues such as affirmative action and mandatory school busing “because of an injustice they never committed” and the resentment that has resulted for many.
Obama also used personal references in his speech and admitted something that the public knows and understands yet is using against him: That people have the ability to love and respect other imperfect people.
The speech was largely in response to footage of Obama’s long-time church leader, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, angrily spouting statements about “white America” from behind a pulpit which are being looped on every major news channel in the country. While Obama has publically criticized Wright’s stance as problematic in respect to the progress that has already been made in the U.S. to promote racial equality, some political pundits claim, as Patrick Buchanan did in Wednesday’s Tampa Tribune, “Wright has, for millions of Americans, filled in the blanks about Barack.”
He uses Wright, a man Obama said comes from a generation of people for whom “the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear” resulting from racism have not faded, and his white grandmother, a woman he said “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,” as examples of this human ability. He said he would neither disown either of them for making mistakes nor disregard their expressed tensions that many people in the nation share.
“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” he said.
To quote the ever-piquant Jon Stewart: “Today, at 11 a.m., a major political figure spoke about race to the American people like they were adults.”
But for all the good in Obama’s speech and the respect he deserves for his openness, there is still a major component to race and racial tensions in the U.S. that remains unexplored: They do not operate on a binary system. While black-and-white may be the kind of racism that is particularly relevant to Obama, his life experience and the current Wright controversy, they are not the only races – or only kind of racism – that exist.
Would people be so reticent to mention race if an Arab-American was running for president, as they have tiptoed around the issue of race and Obama until the footage of Wright surfaced? It is still widely acceptable to express suspicion of individuals who appear to be from an Arab country (the operative word being appear) and to use stereotypes and racial epithets in regard to them. Many people still think they are within the bounds of appropriateness to regard Arab-Americans as some kind of enemy to American values or a threat to the nation.
This prevalent form of racism does not fit into the dualistic system explored by Obama, nor do the innumerable other racial tensions that vary by region and community throughout the country.
Addressing racial tension in a straightforward manner is a wonderful step toward truly progressing in terms of social equality and forming an American national identity based on fairness and egalitarianism. However, race is not an issue confined to two groups, and it is hoped that Obama’s speech will encourage others to examine race in a larger context.
Renee Sessions is a senior majoring in creative writings.