Thursday, March 27, 2008

Obama raises the stakes—and Americans respond

Barack Obama took a big gamble in his speech on Reverend Wright and race, last week. And it appears that Americans rose to the call. Instead of giving us a dumbed-down response to the controversy over Rev. Wright's inflammatory preaching, Obama spoke of the complexity, the good and bad, the hardships--and the triumphs that only sometimes result from lifetimes of struggle on uneven playing fields.

I didn't hear the speech as it was delivered. I was in Washington, DC, at a panel at the Take Back America conference on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., headed up by Rev. Jesse Jackson. I expected that the controversy with Rev. Wright would be discussed, but, bizarrely, there was not a single mention.

Instead, I read Obama's speech on the plane on the way home, in part to see if the words, read critically without his charismatic presentation, would be persuasive.

I felt then, and I feel now after having also watched the speech, that this is one of the most important speeches of our time.

Americans are deeply torn by the issue of race. Obama offered blunt honesty, pain, and hope, coupled with an expectation that we do have it within us all to struggle with an issue that lacks easy answers. No scapegoats were offered for people of any race. No turning a back on anyone, even when they say things we may not like. No easy answers, and no writing off the anger of black people or white people -- who have good reasons to be angry even though people of color are not the source of their pain nor should they be subjected to its expression.

We need to understand and address the causes of the deep disquiet so many feel in this country, and our inability to untangle the issues of race have kept us from doing that -- until now.

Did the gamble pay off? That will be up to all of us. Good leadership, like Obama's, is not a substitute for our own work on this issue. But he showed us it can be done and showed us how. And, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal post-speech poll, the American people continue to admire and support Obama. He, unlike Hillary Clinton, continues to lead McCain in a hypothetical one-on-one contest.

Whatever you think of his candidacy, Obama is offering us a way forward in the difficult, but ultimately deeply hopeful, process of taking on one of the big challenges of our time -- how we get along across the many lines that divide us.

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