Barack Obama should win or lose his party’s nomination for the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country at home and in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in the U.S. That would be a tragedy for all of us.
Race exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race this spring when cable news stations and talk radio played carefully selected incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the retiring pastor of Obama’s home church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city, condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor. But the whole situation points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in the U.S. and the experience of many white Americans. That is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.
Here is what I mean. There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community. Those feelings are born of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities—opportunities that most of America’s white citizens take for granted. African Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen. But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend the reality of black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial—which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.
The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience. Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are told. Black preachers have had the pastoral task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations. The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country.
The media’s use of grainy black-and-white clips of the dashiki-clad Rev. Wright and the angry black male voice was clearly designed to invoke stereotypes and fear. But if you look beyond the images and actually listen to his words about the U.S. being run by “rich white people” while blacks have cabs speeding past them, and about U.S. misdeeds around the world, it’s hard to disagree with many of the facts presented. It’s rather the angry tone of Wright’s comments that provides the offense and the controversy, in addition to some irresponsible affirmations of urban legends such as the government spreading AIDS into the black community.
Ironically, a new generation of black Americans is now eager and ready to move beyond the frustration and anger to a new experience of opportunity and hope. And nobody represents that shift more than Obama. This shift is between an older generation that is sometimes perceived to be stuck in the politics of victimization and grievance and a younger generation that believes that opportunity and progress are now possible—not by ignoring the facts of oppression and discrimination, but by being committed to actually changing them.
Obama represents the hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope and even the possibility of racial unity. Obama’s popularity with many who are white, especially the younger generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in the U.S. But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African-American community, and God’s promise for the future are all clearly articulated. And Obama has been worshipping in that tradition for many years at Trinity UCC, where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It would be a great tragedy if the old rhetoric of black frustration and anger were now to hurt Obama, who has become the best hope of beginning to heal that very frustration and anger. Obama has never chosen to talk about race in the way that Rev. Wright does on the video clips, and indeed he has never played “the race card” at any time in this election. It’s been his opponents that have done so, especially the right-wing conservative media machine that wants the U.S. to believe he is secretly a Muslim and also from a “racist” church.
IN OBAMA’S Philadelphia speech about race, we heard the vision of a new generation, one that understands how injustice does indeed breed frustration and anger but knows that to remain stuck in past anger and present frustration can be counter-productive and even self-destructive. We heard a vision characterized not by incendiary recrimination, but by the possibility of changing the realities that have kept us stuck in a racial stalemate and a mired in a “cynical” and “static” view of America’s painful divides. The speech offered new hope for opportunity and equality and the beginning of the kind of racial reconciliation and unity that few have dared to speak of since the end of the civil rights movement.
We heard a political leader who, as a black man, can also sympathize with white resentment and frustration over racial politics, and who can see both the anger of a black mentor and the racial stereotypes held by a white grandmother as part of him and part of America. The most honest and compelling speech about race in decades could open the promise of a deeper national conversation about our racial past and future than we have had for some time.
Obama’s speech leaves the choice to us. The issue now is whether we will choose to allow the anger and frustration of the past to prevent a more fair and hopeful future. To the question of whether race will continue to divide and conquer our hopes for a better America, Obama gave his answer, “Not this time.” Now we each have to answer the question for ourselves.
This is not just about a candidate now, or a campaign; it is about the country and the choices we have to make about whether we will decide to bind our progress to one another—including those different than us. I think every American should sit down and watch Obama’s address on race, on how to make a “more perfect union.” Watch it with your children to see if this vision for the future of American race relations is something you would want for them. Then ask your children what they think and what they would have us do.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.