As a post-baby boomer, it is interesting to me to see how much of today’s conversation about racial relations is still rooted in the 1960s experience and rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, and the disenchantment that followed. Many in the black and Jewish communities look to this period either with hope as a sign of what it is possible to achieve, or with disenchantment as proof of the other group’s faithlessness. The fact that so much of our dialogue–and so many of our organizations–are still rooted in this 40-year-old narrative makes it extremely hard to move forward: there’s just too much past to reconcile.
Obama cannot, as he was finally forced to acknowledge, transcend race. But as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, Obama can at least begin to reframe our conversations about race by bringing them out of that closed framework and into today. Personally, I thought his speech was very powerful and important, not least of all because he finally named some of the realities on the ground today rather than rehearsing old grievances. Yes, we need to recognize history, but we also need to move past it so we can clearly see and address the deep fissures and challenges our country is facing around race right now, rather than replaying the battles and resentments of yesterday.
Obama more or less acknowledged this need when he asserted that Rev. Wright’s comments belong to the experience of a past generation. The conversation needs to shift now to a younger generation who can speak out of their own experience (for some fascinating insight into how this tension is playing itself out in the African-American community, you can listen to this debate between NAACP Chair Julian Bond and activist Kevin Powell). As Americans, we need to frankly face and address issues of disparity, fear, and resentment as they exist today if we can ever hope to move forward.