Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #010. First published in the St. Cloud Times May 27, 2008

Barack Obama’s March 18 speech in Philadelphia was hailed across the political spectrum as historic.

“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” said Obama.

He challenges us all not to make the same mistake the Rev. Jeremiah Wright did in expressing views “that denigrate both the greatness and goodness of our nation, and that rightly offend white and black alike.” Wright’s error, and ours if we’re not careful, is “to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”

Racism is a problem. It can be so insidious that you’re not even aware of it. The Texas I grew up in during the 1940s and ’50s had “colored only” water fountains, rest rooms, motels and lunch counters. I’d love to say I remember thinking from the beginning how wrong that was, but I would be kidding myself. Though it was terribly wrong, such segregation was simply “the way things were.”

But Obama puts this in perspective. Among the “profound distortions” he identifies in Wright’s comments is “a view that sees white racism as endemic.” And such a view is “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems” — war, economy, health care, climate change — “problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”

Obama recognizes, of course, that many of today’s disparities can be traced to slavery and Jim Crow, and he understands the reality in which Wright’s generation was formed. However, he notes also how “most working-class and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.” But the disadvantage of race for some must be recognized as an advantage for others, regardless of the political terminology used to describe the impact of racial discrimination.

And so, the heart of the matter: Obama says that just as black anger is often counterproductive, white resentments about race “have 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.”

The 1998 movie, “Bulworth,” starring Warren Beatty and Halle Berry and set at the time of the 1996 election, makes a similar statement, though in a very different mode.

Jay Billington Bulworth, a senator from California, is running for re-election. A few days before Nov. 5 he radically changes his campaign message and style, and acknowledges that he and his ilk are beholden to precisely the influence peddlers Obama calls “the real culprits” not only of the middle-class squeeze but (to even worse effect) of the plight of people of color.

Bulworth begins to move within the black community in Los Angeles. They respond to his honesty, and become more honest themselves. What emerges is a genuine conversation about race, which is different from confrontations about racism.

In its own quirky way, “Bulworth” demonstrates Obama’s point: “working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds,” and “in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Just as the blacks in the movie take responsibility for their own future, Obama says that for blacks today this path “means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”

It means insisting on a full measure of justice, yes, but it also means “binding our particular grievances — for better health care and better schools and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans ... and taking full responsibility for our own lives.”

Obama says that the notion of self-determination, coupled with personal responsibility, must be set in the context of “a belief that society can change.”

Wright’s mistake “is not that he spoke about racism in our society; it’s that he spoke as if our society was static.” We know — we have seen — that “America can change.” We are not “irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

No one is responsible for what happened before they were born, though we are all affected by it for good and ill. The current detrimental impact of past discrimination and the opportunity represented by America are both real. The challenge to you and me and all in our increasingly — and blessedly — diverse Central Minnesota community is to do everything we can to maximize the opportunity for everyone so we don’t repeat or continue the tragic past.

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