Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is the racial divide a distraction for Barack?

With his eloquent speech last week on the state of the racial divide in America, Barack seemed to be suggesting that the topic of race deserved a much higher profile in the presidential campaign. I am not convinced. There are plenty of divides in America. Talking about them is no answer and will not magically make any of them go away. If Barack or anyone thinks some topic or "divide" warrants discussion in a presidential campaign, the discussion should be about how to address that topic or divide. And if we are not yet ready to advance to discussing actual solutions, then the discussions can occur many different places in America, but a presidential campaign is unlikely to be the place to make any real progress. A political campaign is all about choosing between alternatives, not airy discussions of concept.

In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Bob Herbert entitled "With a Powerful Speech, Obama Offers a Challenge" tells us:

The fundamental message that Senator Obama is trying to get across is that the racial madness that has perverted so many elections needs to stop -- and stop now. Time and again, that madness has been employed to undermine efforts to create what the senator characterizes as "a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America."

Racial prejudice, ignorance, hostility -- whatever -- has caused millions of Americans to vote against their own economic interests, and for policies that have damaged the country.

"It's hard to address big issues," Mr. Obama told me, "if we're easily diverted or distracted by racial antagonism."

Far more people will see the endless loop of Senator Obama's frenzied former pastor than will ever read or hear the sober, thoughtful, constructive words of the senator himself.

The Philadelphia speech was obviously political, designed to limit the damage that the sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were inflicting on Mr. Obama's campaign. But the theme of the speech was both legitimate and powerful, and it ought to resonate with fair-minded Americans, regardless of whether they support Mr. Obama for president.

"We have a choice in this country," the senator said in his speech. "We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism."

Or, he said, Americans could move in a different direction. "At this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.' This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native-American children. ...

"This time, we want to talk about how lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care. ... This time, we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life."

The great challenges this country continues to face -- challenges linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of terror, a failing economy, climate change, and on and on -- cannot be solved, Mr. Obama said, in an environment riven by divisiveness and hostility.

His Op-Ed piece seems to me to basically fall flat. It seems to me that much of what Barack refers to in his interview that was quoted above has little to do with race, racial discrimination, or any racial divide, and likely to be more about economics, the state of business in America, class, culture, social priorities, etc.

In fact, if Barack really wants to talk about all of the problems he mentions that transcend race, then why would race have such an urgent priority for discussion in a presidential campaign? If we were having race riots and race strikes and massive race protest marches, then maybe race would have "the urgency of now", but that is not the landscape of problems that voters are confronting.

Yes, we do have a significant array of lingering racial problems in this country, but Barack's speech is not the answer. Government cannot solve all problems at every moment. If Barack feels that he has a solution to a problem that the voters find urgent, then let him inform us of his solution. So fare he hasn't. Vision and aspiration are important, but they need to be coupled to the real world and real solutions.

It still appears that Barack was simply trying to finesse a problem from his past rather than stake out a solution to an urgent voter priority. He can proceed to talk a lot more about the racial divide, but I do wonder where he thinks that will get him in the presidential campaign. I do believe that most Americans are eager to transcend race, but I also suspect that they are distinctly disinterested in more endless, circular discussions of the problem without focusing on solutions.

-- Jack Krupansky


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