(Townhall.com, Mar. 22) Imagine being told as a child: "You carry bad blood." Then imagine this stigma was placed on you by one side of your family, in reference to your heritage from the other side of the family. I honestly can't begin to imagine how that would have felt or what it would have done to me. But I think it would have marked me unforgettably. It would have stayed with me for a long time, even if I ultimately overcame it and went on to have a successful life and feel good about myself. Then try to imagine looking in the mirror as you're growing up, and having the whole society where you live send much the same message about your bloodlines and those of your relatives and everyone else who looks like you. I can't imagine that either. Even the effort to walk in those shoes gives me a stab of pain, the sense of a soul-deadening burden. These two scenarios describe, I believe without unfair exaggeration, the personal experience of Sen. Barack Obama and the collective experience of most black Americans for almost 400 years now. They've been on my mind since reading (not hearing) Obama's speech on race in American life, given March 18 in Philadelphia amid controversy over the Afrocentric, anti-American sermons of his longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Obama didn't say his mother's mother told him in so many words that he carried bad blood. But that's the implication I take from his comments about the white grandmother's unthinking racial slurs and her expressed fear of black men. "That's me," the young boy might think. "That's my dad." Would it hurt? Would it stay with you? How could it not?
So I am not particularly offended, as many of my fellow conservatives have been, by Obama's mention of this experience in his speech. Rather I'm troubled by it. It stirs me. It takes me way out of my comfort zone, which is probably not a bad thing.
His implied equation of grandma's momentary private prejudices or bigotry with Rev. Wright's years of public rage and race-baiting does have a note of intellectual dishonesty that reflects poorly on the senator's fitness for the presidency. Yet that doesn't negate the object lesson we all have an opportunity to learn from this uncomfortable episode of the past week.
What we've seen and heard on the Trinity Church video clips -- the enthusiasm of the congregation, even more than the ranting of the pastor -- along with the constructive candor from Obama himself about seldom-discussed issues of resentment and stereotyping between blacks and whites, challenges us to walk in the shoes of African-Americans more empathetically than most of us (me for sure) may ever have done before.
And that again is probably not a bad thing, whatever you think of Barack's aspiration to the White House (I'm having none of it). What would be a bad thing is if we conservatives let this teachable moment slip away in a storm of self-righteous scolding toward the admittedly awful Jeremiah Wright and the admittedly confused folks who think he's on target.
People who are hurting tend to say hurtful things; anyone who's ever been in a bitter family or marital quarrel knows that. And you don't move toward reconciliation and healing in a toxic situation like that, merely by telling the other person (wrong as he may be) to grow up, get over it, stop being childish. You start by trying to understand, by walking in their shoes, and then slowly work back toward civil conversation with the emotional level dialed down. I can't see that it's any different in our multiracial American family of 300 million than in the blood families you and I belong to. Or is it? Tell me what I'm missing.
Let me repeat, just to be clear: Barack Obama is the wrong man to be President of the United States. Though brilliant and gifted, he is too far left, too inexperienced, and yes, too slippery and manipulative. All of those qualities, positive and negative, were evident this week in his speech on race. Michelle Obama is the wrong woman to be First Lady, and Jeremiah Wright is the wrong man to be visiting the Oval Office as spiritual advisor. Neither of them understands America well enough or, it would seem, loves her as she deserves -- warts and all.
But with that said, if these three fellow Americans of ours have provided the rest of us a chance to walk in the shoes of a long-suffering racial group that Lincoln warned would take centuries to knit back fully into our national family, it's too good a chance to miss. No matter what else comes out of the 2008 campaign, that could be one of this year's true blessings. Do as you choose, but I'll be damned if I'm passing it up.
Cross-posted on PoliticsWest.com