I have a thought about Gen. Powell's endorsement. Now I'm going to let you in on a racial secret. Black professionals of a certain age (and I am that age) who work in predominately white environments have long shared a joke about not appearing together or being seen together too often. People would say things like, "uh, oh, there's three of us, better bust it up." The subtext was that a group of African-Americans together might be seen as threatening, as conspiratorial in some way, and thus to be avoided. If you've ever read or heard an account of Michelle and Barack Obama's meeting at the Chicago law firm, they both say she repeatedly turned him down when he asked her out because as the two black associates in their section she thought it would be "tacky" for them to date. Now obviously they got past that and the rest, as they say, is history.
I thought about all that this weekend as the news broke that General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush and Secretary of State under the second, broke with his party and endorsed Barack Obama. As we've discussed already today Gen. Powell talked of Obama's intellect, temperament and approach to issues as the key reasons for his endorsement.
I assume that some people will choose to believe — as they did of Oprah Winfrey — that Colin Powell decided to endorse Sen. Obama because of his race; that in essence he sided with race over party — or in Oprah Winfrey's case race over gender. Both said that race had little to do with their decision but for me I don't see why it should not have.
Can I just tell you? Race isn't what we need to get beyond, racism is. Race is part of who and what we are. Just like I see no reason people shouldn't be proud of Sarah Palin for at least attempting to mother a large family while pursuing executive leadership posts, I see no reason why we have to keep pretending that race is not part of transformative opportunity so many see in the Obama candidacy.
This country's history of trying to overcome the oppression of people on the basis of race is one of the great triumphs of civilization. But it seems to me that on matters of race, dating all the way back to the primaries, this presidential campaign has all too often taken on the aura of a bad marriage, one where the parties cannot get away from each other but have no interest in reconciling.
For his part, I think Sen. Obama has tried to lay a groundwork of common understanding, in his speech in Philadelphia earlier this year. He talked of fears that both whites and blacks have about each other. But all too often that's just where the conversation ends, with a dissection of mutual historical grievance, and no determination of how those grievances should be put to rest. It's like that scene in the Sex and the City movie where the therapist tells Miranda and Steve they just have to decide they aren't going to be mad at each other anymore; except in real life, with black people and white people, somebody forgot to call the therapist. I understand why black people are so annoyed at the minimizing of the hate speech uttered at some of the Republican rallies. It is not for nothing that Sen. Obama was awarded Secret Service protection eight months before the primaries, the earliest point in history. It is insulting to have people like Oprah Winfrey and vice presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill reduced to caricature when their sense of civic responsibility — or in Gwen's case her job — leads them to conclusions or even questions that Republicans find inconvenient. But I also think I understand why many white people don't understand where a Rev. Jeremiah Wright is coming from or why Hillary and Bill Clinton didn't get more slack from black voters after a long history of support for the concerns of people of color, even if they did play rough.
The next term will be a real challenge for the next President: the economy is a mess, the country remains at war on two fronts. As in a troubled marriage there are always chores, and doing those chores can keep the mind off the underlying issues. But those issues are still there. This campaign seems to have shown us that when it comes to race we do get along, but it would be nice if the next president saved some energy to help us do a little better than that.