Obama and the Week of “Race”

To put it simply, Barack Obama blew me away this week with his “race speech,” delivered on March 18th.  As a person who works as a historian of race and ethnicity in the U.S. past, I can honestly say that no major presidential candidate or elected official has ever spoken so candidly and maturely about the issue of race in this country.  As a person of color who cares deeply about the prospects of what Obama called the “more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America,” his words excited me beyond belief.  For the first time I feel like there is the possibility of electing a president who “gets it.”

Most of the news coverage of the speech I saw seemed to prove his underlying point.  Race is a complicated force in this nation’s past and present.  Imbued into the fabric of our national ideologies, and serving as the backbone to many of our institutions, the complex sets of meanings associated with it have been layered onto hierarchies of power for generations.  This result–racism–is as mystifying to the American public as it is well-known.  What serves the cause of racism, allows it to persevere over the centuries and weather its evolutions and transmutations to remain, in some form, in tact, is a nurtured inability for us to recognize it, to analyze it, and to work through it.  Tantamount to this multifaceted process is our shared inability to “talk race” in a way that is illuminating and constructive, healing and forward-looking.  Pundits largely missed this and, in their inability to hear what Obama was saying, relied on what they knew, flawed and problematic as it is.

Last Tuesday, Obama showed how a serious person could acknowledge the racist past and present of this country and not make it about whether or not this country is good or bad.  He demonstrated empathy in his ability to call the racist and racist and yet understand how their “truth” can be forged in daily life in this land.  And he provided a road map out of this mess: the need to begin a sustain a discussion that it messy, honest, painful, and still constructive.

The week ended with Obama receiving the endorsement of  Bill Richardson, the first Latino to seek a major party’s nomination for president.  As the nation’s only Latino governor, and as a respected former member of the Clinton administration, the endorsement is noteworthy and, perhaps, significant.  As a superdelegate with some clout, Richardson’s voice may have the ability to help sway others.  The Clinton campaign’s active dismissal of the endorsement is one indicator they are aware of this potential as well.

With all the exciting news, however, I still find myself a little bit saddened.  I’m not so sure that this nation, in any meaningful measure, heard Obama’s speech in the way it needs to be heard.  I am not sure that the issue of race is not slipping us back to where it like us to be, in the safe, dark corners of the past.

But, some did hear it, no?  And how many people does it take to make a forward step?  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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