Senator Obama's Speech and the Generational Divide

Senator Obama's recent speech about race was an Emperor's New Clothes moment for our nation. A lot of Americans had been feeling pretty darn good about our progress in racial reconciliation, embodied by our first viable biracial presidential candidate. But this speech and the split reaction to it revealed the true condition of race relations in America: generally, white people still don't get how black people see things, as Nick Kristof eloquently argues.

That is, if we're over twenty-five or so.

Mr. Kristof's thesis might not hold as true for young Americans. Teens and twenty-somethings think and talk about race so differently that it's almost as if our country's divided by age instead of race. Granted, I live in Boston, which likes to think of itself as this society's hub but might actually be a strange little island unto itself. But tune in to the humor about race in youth culture, where the pain is processed in a raw, real way, proving perhaps that laughter can be good medicine. Meanwhile the majority in my generation secretly wonder if it isn't time to move "beyond the issue," while many older minorities can never think of racism is a joke.

Senator Obama tapped into those views when he told us earlier in the campaign that there's "no black America and no white America, only the United States of America." Most people my age seemed to like that. But in this recent speech, the Senator told the truth: there are still two ways of viewing history in the past and history in the making.


Barack Obama with his maternal grandparents
Photo courtesy of the Munoz Family via Creative Commons

The pivotal moment in the speech was when he talked about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, pictured above, who is still alive and living in Hawaii:
[She is] a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
In his book Dreams From My Father, he also told of his paternal grandfather who "didn't want the Obama blood sullied by a white woman." Why not quote them equally? Because the heart of the speech was to show that he gets how middle-aged and older blacks see things.

Ending with a story about a twenty-three year old white woman and an older black man coming together around his campaign, Senator Obama spoke to young people, repeating his hope that one day we might indeed move "beyond racism." But, as he reminded the whole nation, that day is not here yet. With new polls showing him falling behind, taking that risk could prove costly. Naming the naked Emperor makes an unseeing crowd feel foolish, and typically we take it out on the messenger. 

Thankfully, a new generation is coming of age, my teens among them, so maybe the Senator's right. The phrase "racial reconciliation" might someday move from the oxymoronic to sounding anachronistic. This century, I pray our churches can speed the process instead of hindering it.

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