Age Matters When We Look At Race

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Barack Obama wrote and delivered a brilliant and brave speech that not only addressed the controversy involving his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., but also kicked off a national conversation – not just about race (been there, done that) but about how members of different generations view race differently. As Obama reminded us from Philadelphia, how you see the world isn’t just influenced by the color of your skin but by the year of your birth.

I learned that lesson several years ago when I was a guest on a public television talk show in Dallas with a couple of veterans of the Latino civil rights movement. I insisted that experience was overrated since many of the experiences that older Latinos went through had left them angry and bitter. One of my fellow panelists, José Angel Gutiérrez – who started the La Raza Unida Party in Texas in 1970, when I was still pedaling around on my tricycle – decided he’d had enough. “It’s too bad the Texas Rangers aren’t around,” he told me, “because what you need is a good . . . whuppin’.”

Gutiérrez and I became friends, but we still don’t see the world the same way.
So it’s not hard for me to believe that the 46-year-old Obama does not share the worldview of the 66-year-old Wright who, as Obama noted, “came of age in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted” and who was known to indulge in anti-American rants and racial diatribes from the pulpit. As millions of voters of all colors have figured out, that is not what Obama is about. Quite the opposite.


Yet others remain unconvinced. Commentators and pundits – including conservatives who already oppose Obama because of his liberal views – complain that the candidate didn’t go far enough. Some are angry that Obama wouldn’t throw Wright overboard, even though he did denounce the minister’s comments.

But that was one of the best things about the speech – the fact that Obama’s treatment of Wright bore no resemblance to the way in which Bill Clinton in 1993 dumped his nominee for a key Justice Department post, old law school chum Lani Guinier, after conservatives labeled her a “quota queen.” That episode taught us more about Clinton than it did Guinier. Likewise, we’ve learned something about Obama. The ability to not wilt under pressure can be useful in a president.
Other critics demand to know why Obama continued attending the Trinity United Church of Christ even after hearing Wright make controversial comments.

That’s a dumb question. As a Catholic, I’ve often heard priests in the pulpit criticize gay marriage, but I did not stand up, point my finger at the altar and denounce the speaker. Still, that doesn’t mean I agree with the sentiments.


I bet many people can relate to that with their own ministers, priests and rabbis. So why are we holding Barack Obama to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?

I’ll tell you. It’s because he might just become our first black president. And some of us are still working through that. It’s because this whole episode taught us more about ourselves, and our society, than it did about Obama or Wright.


Here’s what it taught me: That there are not enough couches in this country, nor enough psychiatrists, to allow Americans – particularly white Americans – to “unpack” all the psychological baggage they’re carrying around about how black people have been treated for most of America’s history.

A friend from college who is now a law professor but also has a Ph.D. in sociology told me she thinks it has to do with the fact that white people know that, if they were in the shoes of African-Americans, they’d find a lot to be angry about – and so they wait for the next eruption of the angry black man or woman.


That makes sense. Why else would so many people get so jittery when they hear sermons like those of Jeremiah Wright Jr., who is obviously a bit player operating on the fringe? And why would so many Americans continue to be so wary of Barack Obama – himself a living testament to the fact that, in this country, opportunity is no longer “systematically constricted” – as if they’re waiting for him to morph into Stokely Carmichael or Huey Newton or H. Rap Brown?

Rest easy. That won’t happen. But what’s disturbing is that so many think it might.

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