Is this speech a turning point?

Blunt talk on race may bring culture shift -- if we let it

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2008 

During a speech in Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, Barack Obama altered -- at least for the past week -- the dialogue about race in America.

The Democratic presidential candidate spoke of the anger of a generation of black leaders whose views were forged amid segregation. But he also acknowledged that whites might rightly resent what they've been asked to give up to offset past prejudice.

The speech, compelled by controversy over Obama's outspoken former minister, explored nuances and blunt feelings. Now events and time will determine whether the speech he delivered in a historic setting will become historic itself.

Liberal commentators piled praise on the speech, with some comparing it to the eloquence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Many conservatives panned it as a political maneuver by Obama to distance himself from the fiery sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

A CBS poll taken two days after Tuesday's speech found that 69 percent of voters who had heard or read about Obama's speech say he did a good job addressing race relations, and 63 percent said they agree with Obama's views on race relations. But the poll also found that only 52 percent of registered voters now think Obama can unite the country, down from 67 percent last month.

Obama spoke of slavery, segregated schools and Jim Crow, and of how these inequalities form the basis for present-day injustices. He talked of the understandable bitterness of whites who were forced to bus their children across town or have lost jobs to blacks who were given an advantage because of race.

"This is where we are right now," he said. "It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

It's difficult to predict which moments and speeches will mark turning points in history. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 didn't take its place in history until its soaring language combined with subsequent events to make it a for-the-ages addition to the American oratorical tradition.

The Rev. Stephen Camp, conference minister for the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, said Obama's speech and the ideas behind it could endure, if people build on it.

People will need to respond by seeking better strategies for health care, housing and education, said Camp, whose conference includes 225 churches across North Carolina and Eastern Virginia. Wright, Obama's former pastor, will speak at the conference's annual gathering this summer.

"If those kinds of things come out of it, then yes, this will be a pivotal moment," said Camp, who is black. "And our nation, in fact, our world, will be a better place."

Are we willing to talk?

In the speech, Obama challenged America to have a new conversation on race. Whether America is willing to have it is another question.

The country's readiness is not an issue for Earline Middleton, who works for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and has participated in organized group discussions on race.

The conversation needs to happen now because the alternative is not an option, said Middleton, who is black. "When groups of people make progress, this country makes progress."

Obama's speech was designed in part to separate him from some of the fiery sermons delivered by his former pastor. Wright, who preached at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago until his recent retirement, can be seen shouting "God damn America" in sermon clips posted on YouTube.

Frustrations such as these are one of the reasons whites and blacks don't talk more about race, said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a white minister who works with the predominantly black congregation at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in Durham.

"White folks don't want to deal with black anger," Wilson-Hartgrove said, emphasizing that Wright's ideas are not particularly new. King, before he was murdered in 1968 in Memphis, was preparing a sermon titled, "Why America May Go To Hell."

"We don't remember that when we celebrate the King holiday," Wilson-Hartgrove said. "We remember that he tried to bring us together."

People, though, aren't easily brought together.

"Part of the reality is that we still live in a society that is segregated and segmented in lots of different ways. We don't have a vibrant civic culture that allows for these kinds of discussions. The only times they happen is in times of crisis," said Robert Korstad, an associate professor of public policy studies and history at Duke University.

Locally, that could be when a new road is proposed for a black neighborhood or when the school board roils over student placements.

"That's not the way to have conversations about complicated issues," said Korstad, who is white.

In the 1990s, President Clinton did some work to this end by appointing John Hope Franklin as chair of the President's Initiative on Race. But the initiative never really stuck in the country's consciousness.

Through young eyes

For younger citizens, such a conversation might not come up. Jay Dawkins, president of the College Republicans at N.C. State University, hopes voters will cast their ballots without regard to race. His concerns about Obama center on the senator's potential governing style.

"Young people become excited about what he represents as a person but forget to examine his politics," said Dawkins, who is white.

Although Duke students discuss Obama, race is not part of the dialogue, said junior David Graham. The conversations center instead on his appeal to young voters.

Race is not on the everyday radar of most Duke students, Graham said, despite the readiness of the media to paint it that way during the lacrosse case.

Graham, who is white, was born long after the days of sit-ins. Even his parents are too young to remember most of the 1960s.

"I wonder if maybe we take the idea of a viable black candidate for president to be more of a given than previous generations would," said Graham, who is editor of The Duke Chronicle.

Away from politics

Like Camp, Irving Joyner thinks the country can move forward in a positive direction.

The conversation will need to take place outside a political context, said Joyner, a law professor at N.C. Central University who has known Wright since the late '60s. It can't happen in the context of a black man and a white woman vying for the country's top office, because questions then would be within the framework of: "Which side do you choose, my brother?"

In a neutral atmosphere, the conversation can be a positive one, said Joyner, who is black and served on the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission.

Leaders would need to be willing to bring together people for conversations at churches, community centers, schools and workplaces. He's not sure there are leaders willing to do that.

"I think there's the capacity to do that," he said. "I don't know if there's the will."

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4889

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