The Obama Speech

I have often analogized contemporary race relations in America -- in conversations with both white and black people -- with a couple arguing without understanding what the other is really thinking. The husband suggests vacationing in South Carolina instead of Florida this year, because they both like to golf. The wife gets upset, thinking that he dislikes her family and wants to permanently end their annual visits. He can't understand her overreaction, and suspects that she's so dead-set on Florida because she wants to see her old hometown boyfriend. They end up fuming seperately, unable to even have the honest conversation that might clear things up.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this was the O.J. Simpson trial, which Barack Obama briefly cited in yesterday's speech. Black Americans tended to think it obvious that a black man should not be convicted (for killing white people, no less) on the basis of evidence gathered, in questionable fashion, by a clearly racist detective. White Americans tended to see an obviously guilty man, and were baffled by blacks seeming to take his side; they attributed it to an unreasonable, even hateful, "us vs. them" mentality. To many blacks, white Americans rooting for conviction seemed to be saying that anything goes in the cause of convicting a black man. Whites and blacks were reduced to guessing what was in each others' minds, and resenting what they imagined lay within.

That same effect plays out, I believe, in everything from police brutality to debate on affirmative action or welfare, and a million topics in between. One of the results is the tendency of many black Americans -- such as Rev. Wright -- to suspect conspiracies where none exist. Many commentators were stunned by Wright's charge that the American government created AIDS,   but that theory has been circulating in black America forever. ("Concocted a germ warfare to the booty/I rocked it/105 million going down/In the ground/Most in the black and the brown/How did I catch this riddle/If I didn't crossover/Like a Hardaway dribble/They blamed it on some/Green African monkey/Now ain't that funky." --Public Enemy, 1994) And when, a decade after that PE rap, both Dick Cheney and John Edwards were clearly ignorant of and unresponsive to the devastatingly high rate of AIDS among black American women when Gwen Ifill broached the topic, you can understand why such conspiratorial suspicions percolate -- it's not so different from the husband convincing himself that the only explanation for his wife's behavior must be that she is in love with her old boyfriend.

In both cases, of course, that paranoia only does more harm -- and fuels equal suspicion and resentment on the other side. And, just as the couple needs to talk things out before they'll be able to enjoy their vacation, blacks and whites in America need some open conversation before we can successfully move forward on a whole range of issues. Which I think is what Barack Obama was getting at yesterday.

All that said, I have one other remark: How can Barack Obama present himself as having authority to speak about race issues, when he never saw his father march with Martin Luther King Jr.?

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