3/24/08 Phila. Inquirer B01
2008 WLNR 5630125
Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)
Copyright 2008 The (PA)
March 24, 2008
Daniel Rubin: Are we really ready to talk race?
An editor poked me with a stick the other day; he wanted me to write
about Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia. As a result, I spent three
hours that night flopping around in bed like a fish on a dock.
It's not that I had ignored the speech. How could I, seeing how
everywhere I looked in the newsroom, people were watching? But I was
working on something else - a piece about the unmeritorious way
Pennsylvania picks its judges.
Every time I started talking about judicial elections and the lack of
minority representation, the conversation worked back to Obama's speech,
in which he condemned the offensive remarks of his former pastor, the
Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., then went on with naked honesty to say
things about how blacks and whites see America.
"The most honest political speech I have ever heard," two people told
me that day. Same exact words.
I went to sleep convinced that Obama had taken the third rail of
American politics - race - and turned it into a balance beam from which
he pronounced the most difficult truths.
And about 1 a.m. I woke up thinking we are not ready for the truth. I
don't think we're ready for Obama. I thought we were. I was naive.
Unelectable When my wife and I would talk about the Democratic
candidates for president, I kept telling her that her Hillary was
unelectable. I'd recall the eight hours I spent in a room with her in
1985, as she sat in for her husband the governor and talked to a dozen
education reporters about school reform in Arkansas. I was blown away by
her brilliance. And then I'd tell my wife that Hillary is just what the
opposition wants. No one would energize the base like another Clinton to
hate, and we'd be caught rehashing the past when the need to fix the
present is so urgent.
Obama is the unelectable one, my wife, the reconstructed Southerner,
would reply. Despite lip service, she argued, in the privacy of the
voting booth too many white people will not pull for a person of color.
A few months later, I'm coming around to my wife's position.
After Obama's speech I went blog hunting, and the headline on the
Politico site left me dismayed: "GOP sees Rev. Wright as path to
victory." They look at Obama. They see his angry pastor.
"It was a speech written to mau-mau the New York Times editorial
board, the network production people, and the media into submission,"
said GOP consultant Rick Wilson, who was behind the 2002 ad that tied
former Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War-wounded Democrat from Georgia, to
Osama bin Laden. "Beautifully calibrated but deeply dishonest." It
didn't take long to spin poetry.
Angry words Hate was all around. In the words of the Clinton
volunteer at a Philadelphia phone bank, who told a Los Angeles Times
reporter that he was voting for Hillary because, "I love the Lord and I
don't want a person named Al-Barack Hussein Obama to be our next
In the work of an aide to John McCain, who was suspended on Thursday
for spreading on the Internet a race-baiting YouTube video that mashes
Obama's words with those of Wright, Malcolm X, and the Public Enemy song
"Fight the Power."
And in a posting on the BooMan Tribune, a liberal Philadelphia-based
blog. The writer, an Obama supporter, had scored a seat at the National
Constitution Center for Tuesday's speech, and afterward was walking
through the Gallery when he sat down and searched for a wireless signal
for his computer.
An elderly white woman sat down next to me and was silent for a
little while. Then she said, "That's where my tax dollars go."
I looked up at her, not knowing what she was referring to, and asked,
She nodded at a group of young
early-20s black people (some with a baby carriage) walking by, and
repeated herself. The people she was referring to were nicely dressed
and appeared to be enjoying themselves as they window-shopped in the
mall. I think I just mumbled something like "Mmmn" and returned my
attention to my laptop. Then the elderly woman said, "Do you know that
Hillary is coming here today?"
I nodded, "Yes. I just came from seeing Obama."
She frowned at this news and then said, "I'm very excited to see
Hillary. She knows how to deal with (she swept her hand around to
indicate the mall crowd) this."
Part of me wonders if this anecdote was a bit of bloggy stagecraft to
advance the Obama cause. But you don't have to make up something like
this. It can be found everywhere.
It reminded me of what I heard covering Europe and the Middle East
from 2000 to 2003. The Kosovars blaming the Serbs. The Serbs blaming the
Americans. The Palestinians blaming the Jews, the Jews blaming the
Palestinians. Each nation intoxicated by its own victimhood. Drying out
is difficult when it feels so right to have been wronged. You don't have
to go about the hard work of moving forward that Obama talked about in
I listened again to the Obama speech Friday morning as I
walked the dog. As he explained the resentments harbored by both black
people and white people - the two separate realities - I remembered the
last time I said something to set off a minor racial incident at
work. I was talking to a cherished colleague, who is black, and she was
mourning the number of minorities who lost their jobs at the paper
during last year's layoffs because they were among the most recent
At least it will be easier for them to get jobs, I said. I was trying
to say something helpful. I wound up saying something hurtful. What made
me think it would be easier? she asked. She didn't make eye contact with
me for days. I insisted to myself I was right. Wait a year, then we'll
see. In fact, our conflict has little to do with numbers, everything to
do with perception. Each convinced we were right, each a little buzzed
on our victimhood.
At least we're starting to talk about this.
Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or email@example.com.