Senator Obama's Speech, the R-word, and the Generational Divide

Senator Obama's recent speech about race was an Emperor's New Clothes moment for this nation. A lot of Americans had been feeling pretty darn good about our progress in racial reconciliation, embodied by our first viable biracial presidential candidate. But this speech and the split reaction to it revealed the true condition of race relations in America: generally, white people still don't get how black people see things, as Nick Kristof eloquently argues.

That is, if we're over twenty-five or so.

Mr. Kristof's thesis might not hold as true for young Americans. Teens and twenty-somethings think and talk about race so differently that it's almost as if our country's divided by age instead of race. Granted, I live in Boston, which likes to think of itself as this society's hub but might actually be a strange little island unto itself. But tune in to the humor about race in youth culture, where people of all races are processing the pain in a raw, real way. Meanwhile the majority in my generation secretly tire of the word "tolerance," hoping it might be time to move "beyond the issue."

That's what Senator Obama tapped into when he told us earlier in the campaign that there's "no black America and no white America, only the United States of America." White people liked that, and black people accepted it because they know he gets their view of seeing things. But in this recent speech, the Senator told the truth: there are still two ways of viewing history in the past and history in the making.

Barack Obama with his maternal grandparents
Photo courtesy of the Munoz Family via Creative Commons

The pivotal moment in the speech was when he described his black church for the "untrained ear." The color of that ear is most likely white-cum-pink. Then he went on to talk about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, pictured above, who is still alive and living in Hawaii:
[She is] 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.
In his book Dreams From My Father, he also told of his paternal grandfather who "didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman." Why not quote them equally? Because the heart of the speech was to show that he gets how blacks see things -- he talked about "our community" when he was speaking to blacks, but addressed whites as an outsider, despite painstaking diplomacy in the beginning and at the end.

Ending with a story about a twenty-three year old white woman and an older black man coming together around his campaign, Senator Obama repeated his hope that one day we might indeed move "beyond racism." But, as he eloquently reminded the nation, that day is not here yet. With new polls showing him falling behind Mrs. Clinton, I'm wondering if the risk was costly. Naming the naked Emperor makes an unseeing crowd feel foolish, and we typically take it out on the messenger.


MotherReader said…
I'm sorry that I missed your post on this right after the speech because I had wanted to share some thoughts on it. I was all fired up.

I was glad that I took the time to listen to the speech - even though I could have read it in a fraction of the time. His pacing, slower than usual, made me stop and absorb the things he was saying. It also gave me a chance to realize how brave he was to say them as a politician.

Just this week, parents took their black children out of a public school in Maryland because their kids were harassed at school by a kid would fly the Confederate flag on his father's truck. When he was told not to do that at school, he AND HIS FATHER put it back on the truck and drove around the town. The final straw came when the girls saw someone hanging around their house taking pictures. The family moved back to DC.

My point is that while some young people have moved beyond some issues of race, so many have not - esp as egged on by their parents. These are the cycles that have to stop. Parents feeding racist crap to their kids and on the other end of the spectrum, parents feeding a diet of hopelessness to their kids. I was encouraged in Obama's speech that he addressed both problems.
Anonymous said…
yoggya said…
that speech is really deep!
i think that racism is one of the things that still makes me feel unhappy as i was avictim once and for a week in our school we had these talks and assemblies on how racism has reduced in britain but if people open there eyes and see there is still lot of racial activities going on. In my opinion it is something that will take a long time to be vanished from this world.