Today on Talk of the Nation, Neal Conan (What is it with guys named Neal/Neil that makes them invariably awesome? Seriously–can you think of anyone with that name that isn’t cool?) and guests were discussing race in the U.S. in response to the recent Obama speech. If you haven’t heard or read the speech, I strongly suggest that you do. Whether or not you like what he has to say, I think it’s an important moment and worth giving a full reading rather than just hearing the media sound bites.
In an L.A. Times op-ed, and on TOTN, director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition Michael Meyers argued that Obama missed an opportunity to change the national dialogue on race from a “group-think” system of stereotypes to an acknowledgement of the individuality of every person, regardless of their race. He dismissed Obama’s speech as “a polarizing treatise on the black experience” and expressed regret that the candidate offered an explanation for his pastor’s controversial words but not a clear cut solution to the underlying problem.
While I really want to agree with Meyers on this, I’m not sure we’re quite as far beyond race as he believes us to be. It feels great to say that we all belong to one race–the human race, but I don’t think that’s a fair representation of the everyday experiences of people in this country. There exists a strong racial tension underlying American life and culture, which I see manifested in bigoted comments from co-workers (both old and young), ignorant family members, and media stereotypes. These tensions are rooted in continually compounding misunderstandings that never get resolved because “polite” society pretends they do not exist.
Maybe I’ve been sheltered from this dialogue by virtue of living in a small midwestern city, but until I heard Obama broach the topic of this tension, I have never seen it truly addressed in terms so poised to aid in a real understanding of the problems on the ground. We cannot move beyond race until we accept and deal with the sources of racism in our society. While I’m sure Obama ultimately sees a future in which we can get beyond “group-think” and on to a more individualistic approach, I think his speech lays the groundwork for an important dialogue that has the potential to bring us closer to Meyers’ ideal.
Apart from being unnecessarily religious and peppered with political talking points, I thought the speech was important, inspiring, and honest. Maybe I’m being drawn in by his pretty words, but it feels so good to hear something so thoughtful and well-constructed after seven plus years of listening to a man with the vocabulary of a four-year-old (sorry four-year-olds) who used a cheat sheet to write in a book of condolences for victims of the Chechnyan school tragedy and then fumbled through a painful statement in which it was blatantly clear that he had remembered two or three key words and phrases from the cheat sheet and proceeded to string them together in a completely unintelligible string of nonsense.
I look forward to the day when I can feel pride in my country rather than embarrassment, and I hope it will happen soon.