Answering the Obama Challenge

My reaction, on reading Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech yesterday, was that he has offered us and our presidential candidates the chance to raise the level of debate in America to a level not reached for more than thirty years. This morning, The New York Times, in an editorial, agrees: “

We can’t know how effective Mr. Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race. What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy — he raised the discussion to a higher plane.

It is going to be difficult, however, for Americans, from lonely bloggers to pundits with a national stage (not to mention Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and even Obama himself) to pull themselves out of the muck they’ve been playing in for so long (each pretending that only the others are in the sewer)—that we’ve been playing in so long—and to begin to address ideals and ideas in our presidential politics, not simply issues (which we have used as a replacement for ideas) and attacks on the weaknesses of others.

Just how hard this will be was brought home to me this morning as I read reader responses to The New York Times “Campaign Stop” column on the Obama speech. One person wrote:

I really believe that this unfortunate episode is just about the worst possible thing that could have happened to Obama – formerly this white boomer’s choice for the presidency. The Reverend Wright has just answered the doubts of every white voter contemplating voting for a black president for the fist time. In spite of all his eloquence, I predict that Sen. Obama will never manage to extract the good reverend’s foot out of his mouth.
Posted by Teddy Harris

This mild (by comparison to many) attempt to bring us back down into Rovian innuendo and spite made me sad for another reason: I doubt the writer feels he (or she… “Teddy” could easily be a woman) is racist, any more than Geraldine Ferraro does. But this is a racist comment, of just the sort Obama was asking (by example) that we rise above. Obama says he heard such unwitting comments from his grandmother, and we have certainly heard them (and worse) from Wright.

But what do we do when they continue, continue in the face of what amounts to a plea that we step above and beyond? Today, following Obama’s example, we ask the person to take a step upward. No longer do we turn away in disgust.

In the little post, Harris assumes a racial divide and hegemonic thought within both whites and blacks of just the sort that Obama, and his panoply of supporters have been working to overcome. Like Wright, Harris does not see that we are trying to move forward from the divisive positions of the past—does not see that we have, in fact, moved forward (even if it is only a tiny step).

No more than black voters (who Obama had to woo away from Hillary Clinton—he was not initially so strongly supported within the African-American community), white voters are not monolithic—nor are they afraid that there’s some sort of secret black resentment in all of that community, a fear that Harris expresses as “doubts.”

Harris is allowing racism to dominate his/her decision-making process, though Teddy would probably be pained to be called racist.

It’s time for Harris, for me, for all Americans to rise above considerations of race and to look to our ideals and dreams—to the best possible future for America. For a long time, we’ve been too scared to express such idealism, mired (as we have been) in the muck of racial divisiveness fomented by political opportunists.

Finally, someone is giving us the opportunity to step up, as a group, to prove that we are something better.

I hope that, one day soon, the Harris’s, both black and white, will look down at themselves, see the muck, rinse themselves off, and step up and join us.

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