The inferno over Pastor Jeremiah Wright threatened to incinerate Obama’s campaign. While I believed that this controversy had come early enough for Obama to respond I got more anxious with each passing day he did not. I could not have been more pleased at Obama’s riposte on the racial state of our union, which when it came, was all at once nuanced, brave, honest, and transformative.
As Obama identified, it is precisely the belief that race is a ticking bomb that blows up the last handler, that makes it such a nuclear political device. Today, however, Obama picked up that bomb and chastised us for believing that if we hide under our school desks we can escape the conflagration of dreams deferred. Instead he called us to defuse the issue of race together in an honest dialogue that recognizes past inequities and present gains. He reminded us that we must hang together or surely we will all hang separately.
Some will say (they have already started) that Obama’s nuance is merely hypocrisy. Racism, they argue, is after all a black and white category, either you are or you are not a racist. This dishonest chorus not only wants to ignore the fact that our racial interactions are usually colored grey but they listened with closed ears to Senator Obama’s reflections on his own racial history and the realizations born, but not exclusively nurtured, from that experience. If Americans are honest with themselves many will admit that they struggle with issues of race. That kindness in one context has been followed by a racial slur in another or that comments about “those people” while obfuscated by other concerns have centrally been about race. Yet, for over 200 years America has raised intra-racial families, families that over centuries went from being shamefully secret to openly celebrated. Every family that has had someone marry across race knows what I’m talking about. There are complexities of feeling and understanding too simple to be categorized in black and white, yet not so insurmountable as to not be overcome. Obama in all his resplendent bravery tried to illuminate those in-between places in his speech today and he did not fail in revealing to us (if we were unaware) the full measure of this issue and how it has been and will continue to be used as a wedge that breaks us all.
The proverbial ball is now in our court and our test will be whether we, as a nation will sit at the table prepared for us or whether, like vandals, we will tear the cloth and scatter its provisions in order to satisfy our basest political instincts.