Seven years ago, months before he won the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama delivered a speech about race.
Celebrated by many and derided by some, it addressed head-on the role of race in his campaign. At the time, I was most struck by his willingness to acknowledge those white Americans who objected to the very notion that the color of their skin affords them privileges denied to people of color.
“Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they’ve been particularly privileged by their race,” Obama said. “Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
“So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudice, resentment builds over time.”
In that moment, candidate Obama was describing many of the people I come from. I know from long experience that I am not alone. Many of us white Americans, particularly those of us with working-class voters in our own families, greeted Obama’s election as a sign of hope that his presidency would chip away at that boulder on the shoulder. Launched by this historic moment of his election, surely we would find our way to a better place in race relations for our nation.
In the most recent issue of New York magazine, Jennifer Senior writes what, to some extent, we already know: Our dream of a more unified America was just that, an illusion. Her story addresses the disappointments of some black Americans.
“In a country whose basic genetic blueprint includes the same crooked mutations that made slavery and Jim Crow possible, it is not possible to have a black president surrounded by black aides on Marine One without paying a price. And the price that Obama has had to pay — and, more important, that African-Americans have had to pay — is one of caution, moderation, and at times compromised policies: The first black president could do only so much, and say only so much, on behalf of other African-Americans. That is the bittersweet irony of the first black presidency.”
Only a white columnist with out-of-control hubris would suggest she or he could speak to the disappointment some black Americans may feel in the presidency of Barack Obama.
I can, however, admit to heartbreak over how it’s played out in the hearts and minds of white Americans. Too many of us continue to see issues of race to be a problem for only the so-called black community. As if they — we love to refer to black people as “they” and “them” — were a country-within-a-country, in a land far, far away.
As for white privilege? There’s still no faster way to start a fight than to say those two words that represent a fact in America.
I moderate a lot of discussions about race on my Facebook page, which is public. Every time, I’m reminded that the unwillingness of some white Americans to acknowledge the inherent privilege of their race is as strong and stubborn as it was when Obama gave that speech in 2008.
The most vocal objections, via email and social media posts, come from a certain group of white men. They hear “privilege” and think of the wealth and power that have eluded them for all of their lives. They cannot see an advantage in the color of their skin because of their certainty of all that they have lost or will never have.
Around and around we go.
Earlier this year, I sat in the audience in Selma, Alabama, as Obama took the stage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bloody march for civil rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The visual of the bridge behind him was striking, and his speech was something only our first black president could have delivered:
“Our march is not yet finished. But we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding, our union is not yet perfect. But we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers and draw strength from their example.”
Ultimately, we can speak only to the contents of our own hearts. On that day in Selma, I could not hear Barack Obama’s words and feel disappointment.
On that day, I could not see him standing in front of that bridge and feel anything but hope. And that sustains me.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
President Obama speaks at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Saturday, March 7, 2015. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)