In his landmark speech about race, Barack Obama apparently has chosen to ignore some difficult claims raised by the sermons of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, in favor of seeking unity. He said that Dr. Wright's comments “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view...that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” He also called them “ not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity.” It is one thing to disagree, but to do so with an appeal to unity is effectively to dismiss dialogue altogether.
Not surprisingly, Obama is calling for unity on the issue of race. Dr. Wright was preaching to a primarily African-American congregation who know the ugly truth about racism from their own personal experience. Unfortunately, by calling Wright's comments “racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems,” ignores the context and serves to avoid a deeper conversation about race. Obama said that Wright was wrong to claim that white racism is endemic, yet offers no argument. The simple fact that Africans came to this country in chains would seem sufficient to support Dr. Wright's position. Even Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee has said that he understands the heat in Wright's rhetoric since they are both from a generation that lived through blatant, legal racial segregation in this country. Changing laws may change behavior, but it doesn't change hearts and minds. Racism is embedded in the thinking of many, including, as Obama pointed out, his own white grandmother. Simply talking about language and attitudes and not calling it racism is a game of semantics that further pushes the discussion underground. Only a full, deep, rich discussion in the light of day will help us to move toward undoing racism. Obama has the opportunity to spark this discussion in America. Perhaps he believes that that would cost him the presidency. Sadly, that is likely true.
The second topic that seems to be off the table is America's support of Israel. Obama suggested that seeing “the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam” was an example of how Wright's view of the country is “profoundly distorted.” Suggesting that America's foreign policy in the Middle East may have contributed to the anger that led to 9/11 is by no means the same as dismissing the danger of radical Islamic ideology. Neither does holding Israel accountable for the way it treats the Palestinians mean that we must stop supporting Israel altogether. No nation, whether it is America or our allies, is exempt from ethical examination. Questioning the behavior of Israel is clearly one of those “third rails” in American politics. In fact, including this in a speech about race, when coverage of Wright's comments didn't include charges against Israel, suggests that it was politically expedient to raise the issue in this way. Unfortunately, neither of these issues is the kind that can be dismissed so quickly. We must accept that difficult and divisive issues can be addressed in respectful conversation. Let's hope we can move beyond sound bites and controversies to the necessary dialogue.