Most working-and-middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. As far as they're concerned, nobody's handed them anything. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures ... so when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage ... because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds. —Barack Obama
Try to imagine any other candidate of color saying those words. "I think we are in the presence of greatness," a cynical, disillusioned woman in her 60s told me after she watched the speech. Every instinct made me want to shrug. I've seen all sorts of politicians who were touted as the greatest thing since Abraham Lincoln last put down his ax.
Then I saw The Speech.
Barack Obama's speech on race in America, the one he delivered in Philadelphia on March 18. I have been watching political and presidential speeches for a long time. I have a vast personal library full of them. Only two or three really moved me.
Till this one. We are, indeed, in the presence of greatness — Barack Obama's and, potentially, our own. This is one of those turning points in American history. We can choose one of two mostly failed visions of the past, those offered by John McCain and the Clintons.
Or we can take the challenge, try to rise to the occasion, and try hard to be what Barack Obama is — the bridge to the 21st century.
A bridge to the century before us, whose end we will never see. That line was a rhetorical gimmick when Bill Clinton first used it. Now we actually have a chance to move beyond our old failed politics.
In the long run, America can get there only by moving beyond and transcending race. That will take a long time, no matter what. "I have never been so naive as to believe we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own," Obama rightly noted. True enough. But we really need to start.
Forty years have passed since any candidate spoke to both races at once. Robert F. Kennedy did so in the Indianapolis ghetto, on April 4, 1968, a night so frightening his police escort peeled off and would not protect him.
He stood on a flatbed truck and told a nearly all-black crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot and killed.
They screamed in horror. RFK then told them, and his nation, "In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in," he said. That was a much starker time, the lines much more sharply drawn between the races.
We have a choice, he told them. We can move toward more hatred and "great polarization — black people among black; white people among white, filled with hatred. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and comprehend."
Kennedy was honest, and candid. He was speaking off the top of his head, and King was not yet cold. "We have had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. [This] is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder." But "the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people want to live together; want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land."
Exactly two months later, Robert Kennedy too was killed. Forty years have passed, and we have been led by failures and cynics ever since. Once again we have a chance to move beyond that. But we have limited time now to pull our raisins out of the sun.
This nation has deeply disillusioned and angered most of the world, doing ourselves incalculable damage with the stupid, clumsy, imperialistic militarism of the last eight years.
John McCain, the creaky Republican nominee, was on sort of a Jurassic Park tour of Europe last week, trying to convince our sort-of-allies that he wouldn't be as bad for the world as Bush was. (Sure, he's for all war, all the time, but is against torture, admits global warming is real, and promises to at least pretend to listen to others.)
The Clintons, back to the wall, know they can't win voters over on the issues, or get them to like their candidate very much. So they are desperately trying to smear Obama as the race candidate. First there was the scud missile attack by the thoroughly expendable Geraldine Ferraro, who suddenly made Barbara Bush's famous 1984 line about her ("rhymes with rich") seem perhaps not all that off-base.
Last weekend, it was Bill Clinton himself who was sent to do the dirty work. He had mostly been in mothballs since contributing to his wife's South Carolina disaster. After praising McCain's patriotism, the former draft-dodger-in-chief said, "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country."
And in that idyllic world, "people could actually ask themselves who is right on the issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."
Well, if you didn't think Bill had the potential to be a stand-up comic, you gotta change your mind. Clinton meant race, of course, as in, "winning this year is too much to worry about without messing with all this Negro stuff." But he was unintentionally hilarious.
Has there ever been a bigger champion of having "other stuff intrude" on our politics than Droppin' Pants Billy Jeff Clinton? You just know that he would be the subtext of his wife's presidency. I'll even bet you can guess how.
We've got a choice, a big one, and a chance, and somehow, incredibly, Barack Obama is ahead in votes and delegates.
Let's hope America lives up to its promise.
Michigan primary update: As you probably know by now, the attempt to have a new Michigan primary on June 3 died stillborn in the Legislature last week. There is plenty of blame to go around.
The Clinton forces wanted a primary — but with a catch. They did not want to allow anyone to vote who took part in the Jan. 15 Republican primary. But many Obama supporters did exactly that, since they were told the Democratic primary was meaningless.
The Republicans last week couldn't have cared less what the Dems did. So it's back to square one. As of now, Michigan's delegates won't be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, not unless they come up with a way to select and seat new ones.
Personally, I still think a privately run "firehouse primary" is the best way to go ... but the Democrats are worried they won't have enough time to get organized. So what will they do?
Hopefully, something.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contract him at firstname.lastname@example.org