There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom. She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
This is the story with which Barack Obama finished his masterful speech on race relations in America today in Philadelphia. After 35 minutes of the most poignant, articulate, personal, and focused discussion of the state of race in this country ever given by any politician, Obama chose to end it with a simple, sweet, quiet story of a small girl doing what she could for a sick mother, that same girl, years later, parlaying that pure spirit into a desire to help whoever she can reach, black or white, rich or poor, and the effect her story has on a single elderly listener.
“I’m here because of Ashley.”
By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children. But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.
It is a perfect ending to what I am willing to state is the single greatest speech given by an American politician since the Gettysburg Address. And, as Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic reports, Obama wrote the entire speech himself. To anyone familiar with the powerful prose in his books, this should not come as a shock, but the fact that he felt the need to take on this speech–easily the most important of the campaign–without a speech writer says several things about the man.
First and foremost it proves that in Barack Obama we are getting an articulate President, a glorious change after eight years of the Texas Tongue Twister. But more importantly it shows that Obama is a man who cares deeply about the causes he espouses. This personal speech was not something he was willing to entrust to others. He knew the notes that he needed to hit, and he went out and hit them. He addressed Rev. Wright's heinous comments, once again decrying them but at the same time explaining that the man behind those hateful words is a truly decent man whom he has known for years and whom, he said,
I can no more disown...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 this 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.
He spoke eloquently of the history and legacy of bigotry and prejudice that has made people like Rev. Wright learn to hate, but he also spoke with passion and compassion about the similar plight of middle class white people who feel that, through no fault of their own, their jobs, their potential, their very lives are being usurped by society to remunerate people of color for evils committed against them by other people, not by them or anyone they know. He placed the history of race relations in America into a clear and precise context to help us to understand where this struggle comes from.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.
That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities. A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.
Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their world view in fundamental ways. 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 own failings.
Still, he recognized that "a similar anger exists within segments of the white community." The bitterness that often flares up–and has done so again in these past few weeks–stems not from any true hatred but from economic reality. It's not that the Democratic voters of Ohio (who, when they said race had affected their vote, overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton) are necessarily inherently racist. It's that they are frustrated and overwhelmed with a situation they didn't create that, as they see it, gives preferential treatment to those whose skin is darker than theirs.
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’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. 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 that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often 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 favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
Obama brought both sides of this issue out front, perhaps for the first time in American history. What other politician has ever done that? He also spoke of the fact–and we all know it is a fact though until today we have never admitted it–that each race openly discusses the other when none of its members are present, but that as soon as there is a mixed race group, everyone acts as if the world has become all hunky-dory. And further, he told us that this is not the way we will ever resolve these issues, and without resolving them we cannot resolve issues like health care, the economy, and education.
In fact it is this last aspect that elevates this speech above its own eloquence and turns it into something more than another brilliant Barack Obama standard "damn the man can speak!" moment. Yes, he put race relations into perspective like no one since Martin Luther King, and possibly better even than King himself. Yes, he found an almost perfect balance of empathy for white and black alike in this complex issue, as perhaps one might expect, given that he began his speech by noting his own mixed heritage. But it is in the complicated intertwining of racial issues and other domestic issues that Obama's real genius shines in this speech. By linking all of these things, by making the argument (and making it persuasively) that it is through fostering better understanding between the races that we begin to heal the divide that actually causes many of our social problems, Obama does the impossible. He somehow manages to turn the liability of race into a potential strength.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option.
Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together. This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.
This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit. This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.
Hillary Clinton has been saying for months that this man is not made of the right stuff to lead the nation, that he cannot handle himself in times of crisis. I think that if you examine the way he has handled himself in the last several weeks, when he has come under increasingly vitriolic and personal attacks, you will find that he handles himself pretty darned well, thank you. Some in the media call him "unflappable," and you know what? I think that's a fairly good attribute to have when that red phone rings at 3 AM. Has anyone used that words to describe Hillary lately?
In this speech, Barack Obama has signaled that he is not only a visionary politician, but a politician who possesses that rare combination of skill, vision, empathy, and the ability to inspire us to try to be the best we can be. He is far more than a guy running on one speech in 2004. He is far more than a guy running on an insubstantial and unsupported message of hope. He is a man with a mission and a very clear idea of how to accomplish it.
The nation has suffered through eight years of a Presidency that has seen record deficits, depletion of natural resources, global warming, an unfathomable and illegal war of choice, the squandering of world sentiment after 9/11, callous disregard for both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, and more arrogance, double-speak, and just plain flat-out lies than I could catalog in a month of blogs. Our country has a cancer. Barack Obama is willing to eat mustard and relish sandwiches if that's what is needed to help eradicate it. In this case, the thin and unfilling sandwich is the national discourse on race, left festering in the dark for far too many years. We need to take it out, examine it, and own it. We need to understand that we have built this. We have made the need. We must pick it up, take a bite, and swallow hard.
I don't know about anyone else, but I'm doing it for Ashley. And Barack.