Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I’m with him

The last time I can remember tears coming to my eyes about an American public event is 1986, when the Challenger shuttle exploded. It happened again this week, though, as I read the remarks of Sen. Barack Obama on race in America. Once again, I felt American.

Obama made me proud to be American, and his speech is not at all about how wonderful it is to be American. Obama acknowledges with eloquence that we got problems here, race problems, and have had them for centuries, since before the Mayflower. It’s a terrible history, and my temptation is to conjure up some of those crimes, in order to validate my white liberal guilt ticket once more.

But there’s more. The more is hope – as in the audacity of hope, the title of Obama’s popular book, a title he got from a sermon by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (I incidentally wish we could hear as many references to the sermon that originated the book as we have to Wright’s sermons that have discomfitted white people.) I don’t think of hope as naïve, or white, or black, or even Christian. I think of it as divine, necessary and definitely not cheap.

It’s only with hope that I can feel the energy necessary to tackle the difficult conversations needed if we as Americans are to acknowledge the burden of our racist history and how it is more or less present today – more present for those who feel disadvantaged by it, including those white people driven by resentment of perceived preferences based on race. Obama very rightly said that white people don’t experience white privilege, especially if they relate to the immigrant experience, which is one of hard work, not birthright privilege. That’s my own family’s frame of reference. I watched the Reagan coalition get built in my household of origin, as my working-class Polish-American father grew old, grew fearful that he would lose what security his hard work had provided, and grew into a Reagan Republican. Resentful white people can’t be guilt tripped about white privilege, and so the raising of consciousness about white privilege hasn’t exactly attracted them in Kansas, or anyplace else where people will vote their interests and these days their resentments.

Obama is as much white as he is black, a recognition that doesn’t get articulated very often, though it underlies the sentiment that he’s not “black enough.” And so Obama gets to articulate what is needful for both the black and white communities because he belongs to both. “White community” is itself a phrase worth noting – far less used than “black community.” (Try Googling it.) “White” doesn’t get used as frequently because it is the default in our majority-white society. But white people don’t see it. I first understood it when taking part in Community Study Circles, a race-relations discussion group. I’m not holier than the rest of white society, but I have been privileged enough to begin having the conversations about race that our society needs to have. It works better than either sweeping race under the rug or nursing resentments, even if stoking resentments opportunistically fires up a certain segment of the voting public.

So I’m with Obama. I think his hope is both audacious and realistic. Also very American. The way forward is together, but the arc of history is mighty long as it bends toward justice. I pray I live long enough to see hope trump hate.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

I'm with you, Marcia. I think what moved me most was his plain-speaking. Not that he wasn't eloquent. I mean that he spoke simply, purely, plainly. Reading and rereading his speech I found paragraphs marked to reread, sentences underlined to post on my
"inspiration" board. What I didn't see were the usual political double-speak, sound-bite-ready slogans and marketing-driven banalities. I know many black people are angry. I would be too. But I also know many white people who do not feel that they are profiting from their white privilege. To hear Obama acknowledge and yes, validate their experience and their feelings of being disenfranchised and left behind was amazing to me.
Can black anger and white resentment be joined to provide the energy to fuel a new political idealism? What a breathtaking vision!