Not so black and white

Obama's extraordinary speech on race captured the subtleties of today's debate.

Race has been part of Barack Obama's campaign since he declared. But never so much as this week, when he was forced to respond to incendiary remarks by his former pastor. That the topic of racism, which usually resides in shadow, has leapt into the open is healthy for the nation.

But it's oh-so-difficult to look at and handle.

America has marched through centuries of racism with bleeding footsteps. In the more distant past, the choices were clear: Keep slavery, or abolish it? Preserve Jim Crow and legalized segregation, or end it?

Since the civil rights era, though, the choices are more nuanced as lingering racism is more subtle. Affirmative action? The courts and many states are rolling that back. A national conversation on race, à la Bill Clinton in 1997? There was little interest.

Now Mr. Obama, whose campaign was all about transcending race, has had to focus on it. On March 18, he delivered a speech that could have been limited to a full repudiation of his spiritual mentor's anti-American, racially-charged oratory. Yet he took it to another level altogether – peeling back layers of anger and misunderstanding between whites and blacks.

He convincingly rejected Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments as "wrong" and "divisive," but then explored racism to a depth rarely seen in a presidential campaign. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who in his fireside radio chats asked Americans to get out their maps so he could explain war-front happenings, Obama used this week's speech as a teaching moment about the intricacies of racism.

He used his personal biography as the son of a white Kansas woman and a black Kenyan man to lift the curtain on the oft-hidden worlds of the two races.

He explained black church services as sometimes "jarring to the untrained ear." He unveiled the causes of lingering black anger. "To simply wish [the anger] away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding" between the races, he warned.

And yet he also took the Bill Cosby position, that blacks not rest on victimhood but take "full responsibility for our lives."

His exploration of the white world was equally honest. Most working- and middle-class Americans don't feel privileged by race, he said. Segments have entrenched anger, too – over forced busing, welfare, and racial preferences.

The speech, penned by Obama with shades of gray and nuance, reflects an age in which racial disparity hangs on stubbornly, but racism itself is no longer treatable with more civil rights laws.

How, then, to make progress? Obama pointed to the rule of the major religions: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It's not a foreign concept in American history. Puritan Jonathan Winthrop, on his way to the New World, spoke of the duty to "love one another. We must bear one another's burdens...make others' conditions our own."

There is truth in Obama's point that the challenges facing America, such as education and healthcare, are "problems that confront us all."

Whether he has the right policy solutions to those problems is for voters to decide. But the spirit of his speech is worth catching and practicing, whoever wins.

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