Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Barack Obama's Post-Racial Politics 2.0

The era of what we called "post-racial politics" in America only lasted about a year. It ended this morning. Maybe Barack Obama's powerful vision of where is America is at in 2008, with regard to race and politics, should be called "post-post racial politics," or, to invoke a popular cliche, Post-Racial Politics 2.0.

Barack Obama's Post-Racial Politics 2.0

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. 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.
-- Sen. Barack Obama, Philadelphia, Pa., March 18, 2008.

The era of what we called "post-racial politics" in America only lasted about a year. It ended this morning. Maybe Barack Obama's powerful vision of where is America is at in 2008, with regard to race and politics, should be called "post-post racial politics," or, to invoke a popular cliche, Post-Racial Politics 2.0.

But unlike a Microsoft update patch, the new version laid out here by Barack Obama is indeed a real improvement because, quite simply, it lays out a path to a more honest and open American dialogue -- and hopefully a brighter future. He did that not by pretending that race is not something woven deeply into our national fabric, but rather by acknowledging race as a tool for moving forward.

There will surely be those -- and in a nation of more than 300 million people, "those" is numbered in the many millions -- who are so deeply hurt by the harsh and sometime thoughtless (not to mention plain wrong) words of Jeremiah Wright that they will be unable to get past them, even in the wake of hearing what Obama himself has to say. And a few of them will be people who otherwise might have voted for Obama -- but I think in the end Obama solidified his support among the milllions more who are receptive to him -- and to a candid discussion of race.

That's because Obama could have played it safe -- and left it at what he'd done this weekend, by going on Fox and the other cable nets and denouncing Wright's most over-the-top and hateful words, and by leaving it at that. In doing so, he already had showed more political savvy than the inept Democrats of campaigns past, especially John Kerry, who thought the Swift Boat allegations were so ridiculous -- as they were -- that he allowed them to fester for days and to take root.

That's not leadership. Leadership is taking risks, speaking and acting forcefully when there is a potential downside, knowing that the greatest downside of all is inaction. Barack Obama went ever further and took a huge risk this morning in Philadelphia -- to acknowledge that he was aware of Wright's more extreme views on some issues and that while he finds them offensive, he will not, and cannot, simply disown his pastor. He added that his Trnity United Church of Christ...

contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Make no mistake, Barack Obama inaugurated a brand-new campaign today. Read today's speech, and go back and read what he was saying, and what people were saying about him, late last year, to see the difference:

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, Mr. Obama acknowledged being out of step with the way most black politicians approach white America. "In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community," he said. "By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms."

The alienation, anger and pessimism that mark speeches from major black American leaders are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches. He talks about America as a "magical place" of diversity and immigration. He appeals to the King-like dream of getting past the racial divide to a place where the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners can pick the best president without regard to skin color.

 

Here at the National Constitution Center, Obama found a new and clearer voice, a way to talk about -- and not to deny -- that alienation, anger and pessimissm but also to talk about why he believes that his generation -- and specifically Barack Obama -- will be the Americans to finally erase much of that anger, by channeling it into positive energy.

Like I said, not everyone wants to hear this -- there are many who, a generation removed from that famous ad, still want to believe in nothing more complex than a whitewashed version of "Morning in America." But to many more, Obama's Philadelphia speech is finally a dose of what the other candidates have only promised -- straight talk, on America's most difficuit subject. In doing so, he answered the question that has hung over his campaign like a butcher's knife for too long: Who is Barack Obama?

The ball is now in America's court. We still don't know whether a black man can become president of the United States. But we have seen -- beyond any shadow of doubt -- that a black man can be presidential.

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Will Bunch
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