Thursday, March 20, 2008

Barack Obama and Race

I have a little side hobby where me and a group of friends talk politics through a yahoo group. I just sent this e-mail tonight. It was long enough, I decided to put the e-mail on my blog as well. Whoever is out there, I hope you enjoy it:

Wow, I'm taking on a complex topic, and this white/black divide is complex. There's absolutely no way I can do it justice right now in the few minutes of time I have to deal with it. I am definitely no expert. But I have a little bit of experience on this subject.

I served a two year Mormon mission in Alabama about 15 years ago now. I spent countless hours riding my bike into the poorest, blackest neighborhoods in those cities. My companion and I would pray on the sidewalks with the people there, holding hands prayer circles. I was too young to really understand the plight of the black community. I do remember the dire circumstances many of them were toiling under. So many fatherless children. Drugs and alcohol problems. And a lot of abject poverty.

Looking back on those times, and having studied a little, reading books like the Autobiography of Malcom X and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and others, you have to know that being white in America, you cannot begin to understand how it feels to be black in America.

We fought a nasty civil war over race. That was generations ago. But the bitterness of Jim Crow and racism was only one lousy generation back. The legacy of hatred and oppression lingers for many generations long after the society has supposedly moved on.

This is why whenever a neighborhood gets too black, the white folks move elsewhere. Why black schools do not receive (and never have) the same level of funding as white schools. Why the percentages of black men in jail still far exceed the percantages of white men in jail.

It's easy for a white American to look at the black community and say they are doing it to themselves. If you had no historical context to their situation, it would seem so. And many of us simply do not have the historical context. We grew up in our white communities in neighborhoods far removed from where the blacks reside. We think that we've moved past the legacy of Jim Crow, segregration, and racism. But then, we had both parents in our homes, parents who were both college educated, living in neighborhoods not overrun by drugs and blight. We attend the neighborhood schools that are free from guns and violence. And then we look to the black communities and say, if we can make it why not them. They have all the opportunities of America I enjoy.

But the blacks of my generation were raised by the blacks of the 1950's and 1960s, which were not good times to be black in America. Theirs is a legacy of bitter racism and hopelessness. Where whites murdered blacks and got away with it. This is also the generation of Jeremiah Wright.

On my mission, I spoke with people who felt the same way about our government as Wright did. There was paranoia and fear about our government. I saw posters on walls and shirts worn with images of Malcom X and calls for black power.

Barack Obama hit it right on the head. The only way to move America past this legacy of fear and misundertanding is to communicate and understand. For Obama to throw Wright under the bus would have been a huge mistake. It would have literally been like throwing the entire black community under the bus. Because there are many people in the black community who feel the same way Jeremiah Wright do.

I'm not saying Reverend Wright is correct in his views. Far from it. But I believe that it's essential to understand the sentiment. And the anger and fear is completely understandable.

The reason Barack Obama is such a perfect candidate to help lead this nation in an effort to heal these racial wounds is that he literally understands both sides of the divide in his bones.

You see nobody else will do. Leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are too much a part of it. They are too much like Jeremia Wright. Too infected by the bitterness. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they are around, but no way could they ever effectively lead our nation.

It's significant that Barack Obama was born of a Kenyan father having been raised by white grandparents in Hawaii. He was brought up without having to experience much of the racisim in America. But it's also significant that he moved to Chicago married a black woman there and attended a black church. Yes, he's a more powerful politician because he went to a church with Jeremiah Wright as a minister. For twenty years he was part of this community working from within. It is through that experience he understands the complexities but because he was raised outside of that experience he was not damaged by it.

I can understand Barack Obama not getting the office because many Americans feel he is not ready to lead. Maybe they feel he's too young or too inexperienced. Maybe they worry that his views on Iraq are too risky that pulling us out too early would be too damaging to the Middle East or that they don't believe in his economic policies. I get that.

But if Barack Obama were to lose this race because he happened to attend church where Jeremiah Wright was the minister, than I would really believe America is not yet ready to elect a black person to office.

Because really the controversy over Wright, to me, is an excuse. It's an excuse and its fear. Those who use it as reasons to shun Obama are afraid of whats boiling under in the black community. Its the same fear that results in blacks being locked up in prisons, or our failure as a society to properly invest in black communities.

Definitely, America has come a long way. No matter what happens, there's plenty of reason to hope. For someone like Barack Obama to get as far as he has is an incredible achievement, and it is a testament both to how incredible he is as a politician and how far we have come here in America.

But this controversy over Jeremia Wright, also really shows me, how much further we still have to go.

I'm sorry for this long e-mail, but when I read articles like this it really fires me up about how ignorant some people are about this issue.

1 comment:

H said...

I heard part of what Wright said on the radio the other day and didn't see anything too far fetched in what he was saying. I am, however, white and was not being stirred into action. The radio guy did have big issues with it and slammed Obama and Wright. He also pointed out all the stuggles Hillary has overcome since she is a woman.

Personally, I've taken about as much time thinking about their race or sex as I have the candidate's religion. I don't know if that makes me an ignorant voter, but I care more about what they have to say and how they behave in the world.

I appreciated your perspective from your mission. Obviously, the race issue is something you are more qualified to talk about than most white men.