Senator Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on racism last week resonated widely (already more than 4 millions views on YouTube) and sparked loads of reaction across the political spectrum. The speech definitely provides us a teachable moment; one that I hope can extend beyond the typical duration of our collective cultural attention span. Lest we succumb to all our competing distractions and penchant for selective amnesia, I’ve extracted and labeled what I think are some of the nuggets of wisdom and key quotes of Obama’s that I hope we can remember as we work to advance the conversation of race and eliminate the racial inequalities structured in our society. 1. Equality, liberty and justice are the ideals we share. “Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.” 2. Turning ideals into reality requires struggle and risk taking. “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.” 3. Our fates are intertwined. “…I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.” 4. It will require unity to solve the problems that divide us. “…we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.” 5. Race and racism cannot be ignored. “But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now… 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.” 6. History matters – there’s a legacy of racial inequality. “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. …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.” 7. Racism continues today. “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. …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.” 8. Racial conflict must be understood if it is to be resolved. “That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.” 9. Change is possible and equitable solutions exist. “But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. … the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” 10. We have a choice today, which can make a real difference. “We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news… That is one option. Or, 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 the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together…. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit. …This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” The work of advancing racial justice will extend far beyond this election, regardless of which candidate you support and who eventually wins. The lessons and themes I take away are ones that transcend the candidate, this speech, and the immediate circumstances leading up to it. To be sure, neither race nor racism will be transcended during this election season or the next administration. But if we work to give this teachable moment some legs––by reminding ourselves and others of the lessons it holds––it can certainly help move us forward. I’m not even entertaining any notions of a perfect union, but I will stake my hopes in some unity and progress.
Extending the Teachable Moment of Obama’s Race Speech
By Terry Keleher Mar 25, 2008