Ask anyone concerned with the growth and healing of people and institutions—a therapist, a religious leader, an addict in 12-step recovery, a motivational speaker, or that consultant your company brings in for team-building workshops—and they’ll all agree on one principle: you can’t solve a problem unless you can talk about it. If we can’t be honest about our fears and resentments—with an expectation that we’ll be listened to with a measure of openness—then they’re only going to fester.
So how is this country ever going to get past its racial tensions, especially in politics? I applaud Barack Obama’s effort to run a “post-racial” campaign, but one of its side effects has been an intensification of our reflexive, angry suppression of racial discussion. As unpleasant as Geraldine Ferraro and Jeremiah Wright’s recent comments were, I don’t see us helping ourselves when the only responses we hear are cries of “race-baiting” and demands for heads to roll. Maybe the way to be “post-racial” or “trans-racial” or “inclusive” is to talk without venom and sloganeering about why so many of us bring race into our political decisions.
For instance, I keep wondering if this blue-collar white resistance to Obama in the Rust Belt isn’t so much due to “racism” as to decades of experience with ugly battles between white and black Democratic political machines. Philadelphians remember the Rizzo machine being replaced, not always to good effect, by the Wilson Goode machine in a racially split election; more recently they’ve seen John Street disappoint the early promise of a broad-based administration and fall back on “the brothers and sisters are running the city!” cant. I think there may be a lot of white people who’d like to see themselves as being willing to vote for a black man but find some experienced-based worries getting in their way. Maybe the reason Obama does so well among blue-collar whites in Illinois is just that they’ve known him long enough to see how well he works with the Daleys, the Blagojeviches, and the Reznos to believe that he can avoid the old us-and-them politics that Chicagoans know so well. (I don’t know that this eases the minds of voters like me, but then latte-sipping Prius-drivers aren’t the main issue in the Pennsylvania primary.)
But how can we find out if this is true or not—how can we understand what this racial divisive is and how we can get past it—if we can’t talk about it?
I like the tone of Obama’s most recent comments on divisiveness in the campaign, but I feel that there’s more he can say. He’s better positioned than any politician in our history—and, as an orator, perhaps more capable—to lead us to think more deeply about our own ideas of race, ethnicity, identity and national unity. And now is the perfect moment to begin. There are risks in talking openly about a subject that makes us all so uncomfortable and that we have all been so conditioned to fear mentioning in public. But there might be huge rewards too. It might be good for the campaign, giving him the chance to reassure white voters that he understands their reservations and that it’s safe to move past them-and-us politics. It would certainly be good for the country.