LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth CAMP Chat by Eric C. Peterson Anger and Eloquence: Barack Obama and Race in America On March 18, Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama delivered one of the
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth
|by Eric C. Peterson|
|Anger and Eloquence: Barack Obama and Race in America
On March 18, Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama delivered one of the most important speeches of his career, possibly just behind the speech he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that caused a nation of cynics to sit up and say, "Who's that guy?"
And in many ways, this speech, delivered at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, helped to answer that question. Barack Obama, in case you hadn't noticed, is black. It's an obvious statement, and yet it's a significant part of his identity that he had never truly addressed as part of his campaign, before that Philadelphia speech. Many Americans (most of them white, it should be added) were probably just fine with that. They didn't believe that it was important for Sen. Obama to speak at length about the color of his skin, secure in their sincere belief that a black person is just like a white person, only with a little more pigment.
But Barack Obama did an admirable job of challenging those beliefs on March 18, effectively tying the opportunity gap between blacks and whites in America to our history of legalized discrimination and using his own life story as "the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas" to connect the color of a person's skin to life experiences that ultimately shape a person's beliefs, values, and outlook, disproving the notion that underneath, we're all the same.
It was an outstanding speech and, to my mind, Obama's finest moment in what has become the longest Presidential primary season in America's history. Unfortunately, it wasn't a speech that Sen. Obama gave willingly; rather, he was forced to address the issues of race and racism after his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a hot topic of discussion when excerpts from several of his sermons were uploaded to YouTube and became instant fixtures during the 24-hour news cycle that preceded Obama's eloquent and thoughtful response.
And so, while speaking to America about the reality of our current racial divide, Sen. Obama took the time to "condemn" selected comments of his former pastor, calling them "appalling." Whether or not Barack Obama was truly appalled or simply in disagreement with Rev. Wright, I do not know; what is clear to me is that Obama had no other choice but to denounce these passages with the strongest possible language if his campaign were to continue. Forgive me if I sound a tad cynical, but I've lived through a few political seasons and I've picked up a few things along the way.
But what I didn't expect, and what surprised me, was that Obama maintained that while some of Wright's comments might be offensive to himself and others, the anger that fueled the sermons was both real, andgiven the history of the black experience in Americasomewhat justified.
The truth is, we white people usually don't like it when black people express anger. We tend to prefer black people like Sen. Obama, who talk endlessly about "hope" and "unity" and "change," never once letting it slip that throughout the history of this "land of the free," black people have been enslaved, discriminated against, and segregated into inferior schools and neighborhoods without adequate resources or police protection. Even for those who don't believe that the history of one generation will dramatically affect the lives of the next, the more recent events in New Orleans and Jena, Louisiana are articles of evidence to show us that a true meritocracy in America is still a goal, not yet a reality.
The way I see it, black people in America have every right to be angry. Their ancestors were brought to this country against their will and ever since they have been discriminated against, often violently, and denied equal access. Any societal gains they have been afforded were achieved through civil disobedience which was initially met with billy clubs and prison sentences. And despite the protestations of well-meaning white people, the fight is not yet over. If I were black in this country, I know I'd be angry.
I know this because a) I'm gay in this country, and b) I'm angry. I live in a heterosexist society that rewards straight people with unearned privileges at my expense. The history of the GLBT community is filled with blatant injustice, outright hatred, and too many violent deaths to count or comprehend. Today, laws exist that separate straight people from gay people, forcing the latter into the role of second-class citizen. I have faith that these laws will soon be repealed ("soon" being a relative term, but I hope for it within my lifetime) through the hard work and dedication of activists and courageous alliesbut I know from looking at other civil rights movements in America that changing the laws do not change all hearts and minds, and I know that gay people will face similar obstacles for the next hundred years or more, just for being born the way they are. And it pisses me off. One can only imagine how angry I'd be if I had the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow to reflect on.
So, for what it's worth: kudos to Sen. Barack Obama, for holding up a mirror to our idealistic but flawed society and inviting us to take a look at ourselves, in all our shame and all our glory. While his speech has received almost universal praise from the pundits and prognosticators in the national media, the reaction of the electorate was predictably mixed. It would seem that some of us didn't like what we saw in the mirror. But sadly, the truth isn't always pretty.
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity educator and practitioner based in Washington, DC, and a frequent visitor to Rehoboth Beach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 03 April 04, 2008