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Race in America: Obama’s state of the union

29 January 2010 at 00:06 | 272 views

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By Henry Champ, CBC, Canada.

How often have you cringed or been embarrassed by a family member or a close friend who made disparaging remarks about some other group?

It is a predicament all of us, regardless of colour, sex or religion, have probably faced at some point or other in our lives. The instigator could be someone you admire and, while you cringed at what was just said, you cut that person some slack.

Barack Obama touched on that conundrum in his Philadelphia speech today while talking about his loyalty to his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons, blaming white America for many of the evils in the world, have become a political lightning rod.

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," said the man who would be president. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in the world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

But yesterday, Obama didn’t cringe. In fact, rather than run from the issue, or hide behind easy denunciations, he delivered what might well become a monument of political speech on the issue of race in America today.

"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Obama said. "We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality."

"For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away. Nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.

"That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.

"At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s failings. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.

"The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning."

White anger
Obama went on: "A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working and middle-class, white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.

"Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they are concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they have built it from scratch.

"They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labour. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away in an era of stagnant wages and global competition.

"Opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot at a good college because of an injustice they have never committed; when they are told that their fears about crime in urban neighbourhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."

"Like the anger in the black community," he added, "these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company."

History’s lessons
I know what he was getting at here. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I spent a good deal of time reporting on what were then called "the troubles" in Northern Ireland.

The bombing and killing in that part of the world went on for years. Political leaders and most journalists always described the violence as a sectarian struggle, Roman Catholics against Protestants. And to a degree it was, but the far greater cause was basic bread and butter.

History had given Protestants an economic advantage. They controlled the country along with a few enfranchised Catholics.

Bernadette Devlin, a young, fiery Catholic leader in her own right, argued that Northern Ireland’s working classes, both Protestant and Catholic, succumbed to stereotypical falsehoods that grew out of ignorance. And that the urban warfare they were waging only served to protect the status quo and harm themselves.

Devlin’s tirades fell largely on deaf ears. But in delivering what is clearly the most important speech of this campaign, Barack Obama is echoing some of those themes.

Like Devlin, Obama argued that there are forces in America today that are happy that the anger of whites and blacks continues.

"Just as black anger has also proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze: A corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favour the few over the many.

"And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding."

Hitting a chord?
Obama went on to argue that unemployment, poor schools, lack of opportunity and lack of health care are common problems that do not answer to colour, sex or religion.

His address in Philadelphia was getting early rave reviews. Many saw it as continuing his campaign theme of inclusiveness. But it was probably also aimed at working-class white males who have been the hardest group for him to corral.

Let us understand who the real enemy is, he was saying, and let us work together.

Bernadette Devlin offered similar ideas in Northern Ireland. She won election to the British House of Commons at a mere 21 years of age. But her efforts to unite the working classes failed.

The battles between young, hard-luck Protestants and Catholics continued for 25 more years. She lost her seat, was a victim of a failed assassination attempt and then faded from public view.

The next few days will determine whether Obama reached his audience or if he even has an audience for his brand of inclusiveness.

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