Monday, March 24, 2008

BOB HERBERT: With a Powerful Speech, Obama Offers a Challenge


Barack Obama was on the phone, speaking about the one issue he had not wanted to focus on in his campaign: race.

He had just given his speech on race in Philadelphia and was expanding a little on the need to get past the endless back and forth on this toxic and frustrating issue. He said he had hoped in his speech to accurately describe the “chasm of misunderstanding” that continues to foster racial division, and to offer a way to “get out of that situation.”

The speech, which has gotten wonderful reviews, should be required reading in classrooms across the country — and in as many other venues as possible. With a worldview that embraces both justice and healing, Senator Obama is better on these issues than any American leader since King.

Unfortunately, what is more likely to happen is that the essence of the speech will be lost in the din that inevitably erupts whenever there is a racial controversy in the United States.

The fundamental message that Senator Obama is trying to get across is that the racial madness that has perverted so many elections needs to stop — and stop now. Time and again, that madness has been employed to undermine efforts to create what the senator characterizes as “a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”

Racial prejudice, ignorance, hostility — whatever — has caused millions of Americans to vote against their own economic interests, and for policies that have damaged the country.

“It’s hard to address big issues,” Mr. Obama told me, “if we’re easily diverted or distracted by racial antagonism.”

Far more people will see the endless loop of Senator Obama’s frenzied former pastor than will ever read or hear the sober, thoughtful, constructive words of the senator himself.

The Philadelphia speech was obviously political, designed to limit the damage that the sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were inflicting on Mr. Obama’s campaign. But the theme of the speech was both legitimate and powerful, and it ought to resonate with fair-minded Americans, regardless of whether they support Mr. Obama for president.

“We have a choice in this country,” the senator said in his speech. “We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism.”

Or, he said, Americans could move in a different direction. “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 talk about how lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care. ... 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.”

The great challenges this country continues to face — challenges linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of terror, a failing economy, climate change, and on and on — cannot be solved, Mr. Obama said, in an environment riven by divisiveness and hostility.

Listening to Senator Obama’s speech, it wasn’t Dr. King who first came to mind but Bobby Kennedy, standing on a flatbed truck in Indianapolis on a cold, windy night in April 1968. Kennedy had to tell a crowd that had gathered to hear him speak that King had been murdered.

A gasp of horror and grief rose into the cold night air. Most of those in the crowd were black.

“In this difficult time for the United Sates,” said Kennedy, “it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black ... you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization — black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

The nation can be proud of the distance it has traveled since 1968. But there are still millions peering fearfully or angrily across the chasm of misunderstanding. Politics aside, Senator Obama’s speech is an excellent place from which to start the difficult work of bridging that divide.

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