Virtually every dialogue about race is so loaded with sensitivity, anger, and pain among both blacks and whites that the language employed is predominantly the language of political correctness. This is a language of people fearful of misspeaking or being misunderstood, who worry about choosing the wrong words when they are just trying to be honest. Two classic instances followed each other: Geraldine Ferraro suggesting that part of Sen. Barack Obama's political pre-eminence was due to his race (which upset his supporters) and Obama referring to his white grandmother's prejudices as those of a "typical white person" (which upset many whites).
Gaffes like these are magnified by an intense media focus—even though it's fair to say the media have been reluctant to challenge Obama so far.
Obama's recent speech on race, which came as an attempt to defuse the dangerous controversy associated with sermons from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, also reflected the complexities facing us. It provoked unusually divergent reactions. Obama supporters extolled the portions that dealt openly and thoughtfully with the broader issue of race in America. They were satisfied that Obama said he doesn't buy into Wright's divisive message. For Obama's critics, the speech did not deal clearly, and for some even accurately, with Obama's more-than-20-year relationship with his pastor.
Facing the issue. Obama's speech was heartfelt and, for the most part, direct. He dealt head-on with the anger that both the African-American community and whites often express in private. Obama described the resentment within the white community over programs intended to improve the lot of African-Americans—many of which began just when the living standards of the white middle and working classes began to erode. He talked about the older generation of blacks who remembered the open racism of Jim Crow laws and the difficulties that accompanied the exodus of African-Americans from the South to the urban areas of the North and West. And how those hardships were exploited by some politicians who encouraged a culture of victimization, which in turn prevented many in the black community from dealing with their own responsibilities for their condition. As the writer Abigail Thernstrom pointed out, Senator Obama's statement that the Reverend Wright has a "profoundly distorted view" rejected the notion of paralyzing black victimization and recognized that the challenges that African-Americans face today have more complicated causes than racism.
I've long been astounded by how difficult it is for outsiders to understand the emotional history of the African-Americans and how it affects them to this day. Two illustrations will suffice. One involved a conversation with a major black urban political leader who said he could never support the police because the police beat him and his friends up when he was a child. Another involved an outstanding national leader who justified his cautious policies on the belief that, as the first African-American to fulfill such a particular national position, he couldn't afford to take any risks.
But Senator Obama also spoke to the anger that exists within segments of the white working and middle class who didn't benefit from the fact that they were white. Like immigrants, they had to build everything from scratch and work hard for it all of their lives. Their resentments grew when programs like busing and affirmative action gave preferences to African-Americans that whites never received and when they were told their fears about the explosion of urban crime somehow or other reflected racial prejudice. Obama acknowledged these concerns are legitimate and not necessarily racist for, as he noted, "most working- and middle-class Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race."
As someone who witnessed firsthand the busing crisis in Boston and its perception as an injustice by Boston's ethnic working classes—Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and Asians—I saw a resentment inspired not so much by the busing of blacks into white schools but by the busing of their children into black schools and neighborhoods. The resentment was inflamed by the fact that the decision and opinion makers, be they in the courts or the leading newspapers, were elites who lived in the suburbs with no connection to the human pain of busing. So it was a relief to see Obama's understanding of how these people reacted. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal rightly described this part of Obama's remarks as "a thinking man's speech."