Barack to the future

Obama’s speech on race may lead a brave new world

Rhonda Erwin is an advocate for endangered youth and a frequent SN&R contributor. She lives in Sacramento.

This year, as in previous presidential elections, I was resigned to choosing the lesser of two evils. I was determined to learn each candidate’s solutions for my community, the poor and underprivileged, with the understanding that probably not much would change. But then, quite suddenly, the national conversation turned toward race.

I recognized the furor over remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, for what it was: a calculated distraction.

When you reside in the underprivileged community, exposed to suffering and neglect, you seldom have time to focus on race. My struggle is with poverty, homelessness, unemployment, lack of education, drugs, crime and imprisonment. Focusing on race does not ease my suffering. Nor would focusing on race comfort those living in oppressed environments who are not black. Focusing on race provides government cover to avoid working on anything resembling a real solution. The country becomes stalled with the racial conversations of yesterday.

Using race as a distraction is practiced by the White House as well as our own state and local governments. I see it every day in Sacramento, in a justice system that divides juveniles into dueling groups of race. Sometimes we can unintentionally walk in reverse because we continuously look behind us. The American people are exhausted from walking on this treadmill.

Against this backdrop, Obama’s March 18 speech on race, was brilliant, if slightly flawed. It appears that growing up biracial and hearing prejudicial comments made by his own white grandmother have instilled a belief in the power of unity that is not shared by either of his competitors. Unity is the key to unlocking the past and moving beyond the distraction of race.

The main fault I find with Obama’s speech are his overly broad generalizations of the white and black communities, which leave the door open for continued division and distraction. I live in a time where many blacks and whites have failed to acknowledge and truly see the oppression and neglect within America’s underprivileged community. I also live in a time where blacks and whites alike have sought to address issues such as poverty, neglect and oppression. To take power out of the hands of government and return it to the American people, we must work together to dismantle the distractions. Otherwise, we will remain in a psychologically frozen state.

What concerns me about politicians today is that too many of them continue to address current issues using yesterday’s tools. Impressively, Obama uses the past to thaw our present psychologically frozen state and redirect our energies toward the future. We should fight today’s battle with today’s tools. The tool needed is unity.

When you are underprivileged, living in a country fixated on class division, you become overlooked, suffocated, invisible and often voiceless. You hope in vain that the nation will focus on solutions within your community. If the American people can come together, undivided by race and class, we can finally begin focusing on those solutions. Obama’s speech gives hope to the once hopeless.