Former NAACP leader Julian Bond wants President Obama to lead a “national dialogue” on race, but the president is not going to do that, and he’s making a smart political decision. In the wake of the Shirley Sherrod story, the race issue is back in the news, but any public discussion is fraught with danger. Trying to define and heal racial divisions in America will inevitably lead to verbal roadside bombs — anything can explode at any time.
The problem is common ground. Sherrod, for example, was raised in the Deep South at a time when white oppression kept her family in fear for their lives. In fact, her father was murdered, and Sherrod has said it changed her entire life. Black Americans raised before federal civil rights legislation was passed have indelible memories of the racial horror that was heaped upon them. No matter what anyone says, those experiences have shaped attitudes that are in stone. And if you didn’t live through what Sherrod did, it is impossible to know exactly how she feels.
Obama says Americans should understand and celebrate the enormous racial progress that’s been made in this country, and that is a sensible, positive request. But for many, Obama’s vision is naive. Race remains an exposed electrical wire. If you say the wrong thing, even innocently, you risk being branded a bigot by those who use racial division as a political club or as a profit center. There is big money to be made in the grievance industry.
Obama witnessed this first hand in Chicago. His former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, recently bought a million-dollar property in a mostly white neighborhood. Wright sells CDs of his anti-American speeches in the lobby of the Trinity Church. Despite the recession, business has been good. By the way, as Obama has pointed out, Wright was raised before the feds began to right racial wrongs.
Many Americans believe that blacks began to sample freedom once the Civil War was over. But it was not until President Harry Truman began a program to lend money at 1 percent interest to black sharecroppers that African-Americans outside the cities truly had a chance to compete in the free marketplace. Older black Americans remember the struggles of Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne and many others. They also remember the assassination of Dr. King at the hands of a white racist. All these turbulent events are still playing out today.
Obama knows all this. He well understands that he cannot get caught in the swamp of racial politics and still effectively lead the nation. So he is promoting expensive entitlements and tax-the-rich policies in trying to help poor Americans of all colors, believing African-Americans will benefit most of all. But do not expect Obama to engage in color discussions. He will not.
The essential divide in America right now is this: Does the country owe a debt to those who were wronged throughout history, or should we get past the past and drop the color and ethnic divisions? Opinion on the answer to this question is, of course, divided. And rarely are hearts and minds changed on the matter.