Focus on Race in Politics Raises Concern

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race in America electrified many. But some argue that, given other pressing issues such as the economy, conversations on race are an unwelcome distraction. Christopher Edley, a former adviser to President Clinton, and Jeff Jacoby, of The Boston Globe, discuss race and politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our monthly peek into the pages of top women's magazines, plus author Paula Giddings on her landmark biography of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. That's later.

But first, Senator Barack Obama's speech on race and faith last week continues to reverberate, but not just for its eloquence. While many say it's high time for the kind of national dialogue on race that the speech seemed to call for, many conservative pundits have been highly critical of that idea, and even questioned the relevance of such a conversation. Joining us to talk about this are Christopher Edley, dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, and Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe. Welcome to you both and thank you for speaking with us.

Professor CHRISTOPHER EDLEY (Dean, University of California at Berkeley Law School): Hi, Michel, great to be with you.

MARTIN: Hi, good morning. Chris, we called you in part because you served the Clinton White House in 1997 as a consultant to President Clinton's advisory board on race initiative, which was in a way a national conversation on race. So do you think we need another one?

Prof. EDLEY: I think it was an effort to talk about race sort of in the abstract as opposed to talking about the pressing social and economic, and even international challenges that we face, and the way in which race, or differences about race, play a role in those struggles. One of the things that Barack talked about I think quite well in his speech was that race is one of the aspects of difference. That the way I put it, it gets in the way of moral and political consensus needed in order to make progress on the toughest challenges.

MARTIN: Jeff Jacoby, you wrote a column a day after Senator Obama's speech suggesting that the issue really isn't race, it's Wright, as in Jeremiah Wright, and what Barack Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright says about him. It's really not about the country so much as it's about him.

Mr. JEFF JACOBY (Reporter, Boston Globe): I think that's right, and I think that the way that the national conversation, if you will, since that whole episode blew up over the past couple of weeks has unfolded, it makes it clear that for a lot of people this really is a question about the moral values the candidate for president will embrace and will wrap themselves in. I have to say, I agree with something Professor Edley said just a few days ago on NPR when he said that the national leaders, national politicians, need to be extremely careful, and you know, very modest about trying to suggest that they're going to guide the political discourse of the national conversation of this country.

I would say, you know, the Obama campaign itself, the phenomenon of this campaign, the idea that you've got a candidate who's the son of an African father who is now a leading candidate for President of the United States, all of the emotion and the discussion and the conversation that that candidacy has generated, has itself been, in part, a national conversation about race. The idea that we somehow need to have something directed from on high telling us about which particular topics to talk about and which angles of that subject we need to discuss, I think it's a little bit presumptuous. No politician is going to be able to lead that kind of a dialogue. We're 300 million people in this country. We're having quite a conversation about race as we have in many ways and in changing ways, for generations.

MARTIN: But what's the bully pulpit for, if it's not to steer conversations about things that are hard?

Mr. JACOBY: I do appreciate that, but not necessarily in the context of a campaign, at least not for something like race. That is to say the speech I think was not just about Jeremiah Wright and it wasn't about Barack Obama. Part of the genius of it was that he expanded it and talked about how his relationship with Wright, his relationship with the church, the conflicts within Wright, the conflicts within Barack himself, are indeed paralleling conflicts within divisions within the country as a whole throughout its history. And that ability to lift us out of the immediate political scuffle over Wright, to talk about the challenges that America has been facing for hundreds of years, I think was very important. But you can't get very far on issues of this complexity in the course of a political campaign.

So what I would say is that when we're trying to talk about fixing K-through-12 schools, when we're trying to talk about economic security for all of our families, those are the moments when, as president, there's an opportunity to talk to the country about closing the empathy gap by better understanding the circumstances in which different kinds of communities, different kinds of families live. And that's a conversation about race.

MARTIN: Hold on one second please. Dean Edley, I want to play you a short clip from a conversation that we also had last week with a panel of white voters in Pennsylvania, and we specifically asked for a group of white voters to get together because it was assumed by some that was really the sort of the key audience for the conversation because a lot of the other folks kind of knew what Senator Obama was talking about. That he really had to make his case to people who would not be as familiar with some of the issues in front of them. So this is Rick Bloomingdale, the secretary treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. He was one of our guests and this is one of the things he said.

Mr. RICK BLOOMINGDALE (Secretary Treasurer, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO): The vast majority of voters and the folks I talk to in the labor movement, they want to know where the candidates are right now on the economy, health care, pensions - I mean that's what we want to talk about. That's what affects us as workers.

MARTIN: What he's suggesting, Chris, is that race really isn't on the table, or that even talking about race is a distraction for a lot of these voters. What do you say?

Prof. EDLEY: That's exactly why I don't think the campaign is the time to try to engage in that broader conversation that we've been talking about. When he's governing, race will be important simply because it's required to address it, I believe, in order to forge the kind of moral and political consensus we need on issues whether it's immigration or whether it's when do we use troops abroad. Why didn't we go into Rwanda? If you hide from the issue of race than you're going to fail in your obligations as a leader to build bridges that will connect people across lines of class and color.

Mr. JACOBY: You know, Michel.

MARTIN: Hold on one second, Jeff. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Christopher Edley, dean of the law school at UC Berkeley and Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, about whether a national conversation about race is relevant or necessary. Jeff?

Mr. JACOBY: Michel, it seems to me that a lot of the issues that we often conventionally will lump under the category of race really are about other things. They really are other issues. They're issues of family structure in dysfunctional families. They're issues of economic practice. They're issues of education and of work history and work skills. We tend to, you know, shoehorn a lot of things under this rubric of race in a way that they really don't belong and that it isn't really helpful to talk about. I think that the guy that we just heard from in Pennsylvania is right when he says that this is not the dominant issue.

It's not the most salient issue on the mind of most people who are going to vote in this country. But if you're going to have a conversation about race, or if Barack Obama thinks we should be having one, I think where he can be the most useful and be the most effective is precisely in talking with black Americans and leading a conversation within the black community about the kinds of ideas that he spoke about in his speech that he said too many black Americans believe - for example he talked about the view that sees white racism as endemic. Poll after poll shows that for huge swaths of the black community, that is the view. If Barack Obama, running for president, the first genuinely serious and plausible black candidate to run for president is prepared to get up and say to fellow black Americans, it's wrong to describe white racism as endemic in this country, that I think could be tremendously useful and beneficial.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Hold on Jeff, you seem to be saying that the degree to which this is a useful conversation is the degree to which he agrees with you.

Mr. JACOBY: No no no.

MARTIN: Because, hold on, let me just try this analogy with you. Let me just try this. It's an imperfect analogy, but all I'm wondering is this one of these, honey we need to talk, situations? Where, you know, the wife comes home with a big credit card bill, husband goes ballistic, wife says this is about the way your treat me, husband say, this is, you spend too much on shoes, and that in a way they're both right, but that the fact that one party gets to dismiss what the other party wants to talk about is itself reflective of a power imbalance?

Mr. JACOBY: Well, I think the fact that so many voters, so many millions of white of voters have been turning out to vote for Barack Obama makes it clear that he is not being dismissed, and what he's saying is not being just simply brushed aside. A huge number of voters of every race have been embracing him. What I'm suggesting though, is that the subset of the population with which he would have the particular moral authority to lead this kind of conversation to try to change or elevate views is precisely what the voters who might have said, as many blacks were saying not long ago, there's no chance that a black man could be president of this country.

Barack Obama is in a position to step forward and say, listen my fellow black Americans, here's a black man who is a good shot to become President of the United States. You need to change the way you've been thinking about race relations in this country and I'm here to tell you that those views are wrong and there's a better, more optimistic, and more hopeful way of thinking about life in this country.

MARTIN: Chris?

Prof. EDLEY: Well, I think that's quite obviously what Barack is prepared to do. And a bunch of that is in the speech that he gave last week, but I think it is a grave mistake to think that he should limit that effort at leading, at educating and teaching just to African-Americans, he should be doing it for all Americans because there are definitely lessons for all Americans in this arena. Look, last week he gave three wonderfully substantive, insightful speeches, in my opinion. One of them was on race, but another was on the economy and the third was on Iraq. So to suggest that he is letting race sort of hijack his message or become the message of his campaign, that's not at all what he is proposed to doing. There's limited bandwidth, to be sure, in the media, and what the media are prepared to cover. But he's addressing it all, and he's trying to address all of us.

MARTIN: Well, Jeff, final question to you. Do you think John McCain should talk about race, too? I mean, white people are a race. What do you think?

Mr. JACOBY: I think candidates for president need first and foremost to be talking about what kind of presidency they would hope to administer. What they think the country needs to be doing on the issues that are most important to voters. Race has become an issue, where we're talking about it in this way, we're having this conversation ourselves right now, precisely because of this Jeremiah Wright business that blew up in Chicago.

Prof. EDLEY: And because of who Barack is, as you pointed out. By virtue of who he is we've, it's triggered a lot of conversation. Which is good for the country, I believe.

Mr. JACOBY: You know a number of people, just to make an analogy to a different kind of bigotry.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Jeff. Very briefly.

Mr. JACOBY: A lot of people talked about John McCain and this John Hagee with his anti-Catholic comment, the big difference with Barack Obama is that Jeremiah Wright is the man that he describes as his mentor, his spiritual father. When a candidate for president one as plausible and strong as Barack Obama points to someone and says that man is my mentor and my spiritual father, what that man says and believes and preaches then becomes a big issue.

MARTIN: OK. We have to leave it there.

Mr. JACOBY: And they're leaving a lot out of that speech...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there, gentlemen, thank you both. Boston Globe Columnist Jeff Jacoby joined us from his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. We were also joined by Christopher Edley, dean of the Law School at the University of California at Berkeley. He joined us from his home in California. I thank you both.

Mr. JACOBY: Thanks a lot.

Prof. EDLEY: Thank you.

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