I've just read Barack Obama's speech on race.
He makes the point that we haven't got past the issue and he's right. It looms over us like Poe's Raven. Only this time it's Obama who utters "Nevermore!" If there's been a politician in recent memory who wants to make race irrelevant, it's him.
I've met him twice and I'm convinced of his integrity on this issue. He could have completely disowned Rev. Wright, but he chose not to. Like the intelligent observer of history he is, Obama reminded his listeners that the Constitution itself originally ignored the question of race and slavery. Without the support of slave-owning aristocrats like Jefferson and Washington, there would have been no constitution and no United States of America. For those interested in the tortured intricacies of the 1780s and 1790s, read Joseph Ellis's excellent early history of the first decades of the republic "The Creation."
What was compelling about Obama's speech is that he didn't duck the issue by telling stories, throwing out the usual jeremiads about race relations or the venom that comes out of this subject. Here's what he said:
"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us."
Economic opportunity, institutional discrimination, lack of basic services in black neighborhoods. These have been long-standing problems that neither the Great Society programs of the 1960s nor Clinton welfare reform have resolved. Obama wisely gets us to refocus on these issues, instead of being distracted by rhetoric.
Why have 20 Chicago schoolchildren been shot to death this year? Why have inner cities languished while suburban development prospers? Why are there more than 1 million people incarcerated in the U.S. (many of them people of color with little education) -- an all-time high? Why do voucher programs gain support in cities? Have we, as a society, given up?
Obama noted that thousands of jobs have been lost in the inner cities. I can tell you from my own experience that Chicago, for example, once was a bastion of opportunity for people of every color. Men from Eastern Europe, the rural south and from all parts of the country knew they could get a job in a Chicago factory and mill. They knew that, despite the danger of the work, they could earn a decent union wage and retire in dignity. They knew the union would protect their right to work and not be exploited. I know because I saw it with my own eyes when I was reporting on the steel industry in the early 1980s. Black and Hispanic men worked decent jobs in the mills. A woman was president of the Steelworkers local that represented US Steel's South Works. A Hispanic man was president of another local.
Where did all of those jobs go? What happened to those families when all of the mills closed or relocated? South Chicago became a ghost town. I visited this once-bustling multi-ethnic neighborhood this past summer. Entire blocks are empty. The South Works mill, which occupied a piece of property larger than the entire Chicago Loop, was leveled to make way for a mega-development on prime lakefront property that for numerous opaque reasons hasn't gotten off the ground. There's more tumbleweeds there than the OK Corral.
So when Obama says we shouldn't shift the focus from the embedded and unique problems of race, I can respect that message. While I'm not sure yet if he's the right person to be president, he's certainly qualified to be a political surgeon general for his attempt to heal some old and troubling wounds.