Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talking Honestly About Race Is Easier Said Than Done

by Betty Winston Baye'
Louisville Courier-Journal
March 27, 2008

While on break in a jury pool this week, I read every word of Barack Obama's Philadelphia unburdening on race. It's not the best ever delivered, and his delivery didn't knock my socks off, but it was a very good speech.

Referring to his friend and pastor of 20 years, Obama acknowledged that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks ignited a "firestorm" and reflected "a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right about America." My response is that people tend to see America how they experience America.

I felt a little better when Obama went on to say that "the snippets" of Wright's sermon and "the caricatures being peddled by some commentators" do not represent "all that I know of the man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith."

Obama recalled that Wright and other African Americans of his generation (my generation, I hasten to add) "came of age in the late '50s and early '60s… a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them."

I'll say.

At least Obama, unlike some his age, sees that he is not self-created -- that he is, in fact, the beneficiary of struggles waged long before a white American from Kansas met an African from Kenya in Hawaii, married and in 1961 gave birth to a pretty brown baby boy.

I didn't like what seemed to me Obama's putdown of my generation. But it's hard to hold a grudge when my generation of social activists was in the habit of putting down predecessors. It's a rite of passage to see flaws in one's elders. It was a while before many of us in the movement understood that social revolutions tend to take time.

It pains me to recall an especially unkind letter I wrote to The New York Amsterdam News, attacking NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. I was young, energetic and enthusiastic, but had never walked a mile in the shoes of a black man many years my elder.

As for Obama, he'll figure out that he didn't invent the idea of forging alliances across racial lines, and that he's not the first to cry for change, now! He's been able to carry the demand further because of what others did.

Sadly, the impact of his speech won't reach some, because there's still no common vocabulary for black and white Americans to use in talking honestly about race.

I adored his insistence that Americans "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." Shared adversity often has been an organizing tool, helping to keep disadvantaged groups from being at one another's throats.

Audacity of hope notwithstanding, Obama gets it that America has been stuck in "racial stalemate" for years, partly because we talk past each other. I was reminded of this anew when a near-hysterical caller on a radio show excoriated Obama for belonging to that "segregated church," Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Actually, the UCC is a predominately white denomination, and the caller missed the part of Obama's speech in which he repeated "the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning."

Most American Christian churches are segregated; a few blacks or whites sprinkled in does not an integrated congregation make. The difference, however, is that some churches acknowledge their segregation and talk often about how they came to be that way. At other segregated churches, the subject of why they're segregated hardly ever comes up. It's the old elephant in the living room. Sunday after Sunday, pastors preach comfort-food sermons that don't challenge the fact that good church folks make wonderful mission trips abroad, but hardly engage in meaningful ways with fellow Christians worshipping in their segregated churches across town.

Obama said in his speech, and he's right, that there remain "complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked out." Isn't it obvious in the tenor of this campaign? Obama is also right that it's naïve to believe 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."

Clearly, a lot of Americans aren't comfortable with race "talk." It's painful. So they ask the infamous Rodney King question, "Can't we all just get along?" Well, now Barack Obama says, "Yes we can," and he's being told by some, "Not now, Junior."

But you know in my church, from pulpit, pews and the choir stand, it often is said and sung, "What God has for me is for me," and "No weapon formed against me shall prosper." I take that to mean that if the presidency is what God has for Barack Obama, it will be, and nobody -- not Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Jeremiah Wright -- will stop it.

Betty Winston Bayé is a Courier-Journal editorial writer. Her column appears Thursdays in Community Forum.

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