Report from the first Rapid Responsa: Race, Resentment and the “Obama Moment”

Stephen Stern, Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs writes: 

Nine days after Presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech, I had the privilege of facilitating a discussion on “race and resentment” at the Washington DCJCC.  Chief Program Officer Joshua Ford and I organized our first Rapid Responsa to address what seemed a rare cultural moment, to have meaningful personal dialogue about what had become a hot button public controversy, touching on very raw societal nerves.  We got the first word out Sunday night, and on Thursday we had gathered thirty some people in a circle of chairs in the Community Hall, a grand mixture of generations, men and women, perhaps 25% of African-American origin, and a large number of people (not all) from our Jewish community.  I was constantly astonished as participants spoke with restraint and depth; profound respect, but real passion about differences – and speaking about those differences as if they were gifts in which we all might share.  Our participants opened their hearts and minds to look at people forming themselves in the face of anger and resentment, but did so without speaking to each other with anger and resentment.  

We read aloud brief excerpts from Senator Obama’s speech, which Josh and I grouped under headings i) The Personal: Encountering “Cringe” Moments in Black and White Communities, and ii) The Societal: Anger and a Path to Progress?  We asked participants to look at this not as an opportunity for political advocacy or opposition, but for frank encounters on how we identified and connected as community.  We turned to our special guests to launch the conversation — Ira Forman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, not speaking for the NJDC or for any candidate, but as someone who had been responding to rumors and attacks on Senator Obama that were circulating in the Jewish community; and Jonetta Rose Barras, commentator on local politics for WAMU and newspaper columnist, who had written an Outlook front page commentary in the previous Sunday’s Washington Post on black churches, African-American identities and her path in life.  The following is from my notes taken while I participated in the discussion, as well as moderated with an eye to seeing that everyone was given an opportunity, and a prod, to speak.  Any distortions in my account are invitation for you to correct me in the comments section.

Ira started by reflecting on a formative time when race and rage were tearing America apart, April 4, 1968 and Robert Kennedy arriving in an Indianapolis black community to inform the gathering of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr..  RFK spoke of anger and division, the tragedies befalling his own family and country, and the seeking of community and rights across divisions.  The parallels to some of Obama’s themes were raised and Ira quoted from Obama’s passage on how our current age often sees race as spectacle, with cynicism and conflict.  He outlined Obama’s call to construct an alternative politics, which Ira deemed in many ways a response to a political problem for Obama.  There are real issues for Jews and others raised by what can be seen as Reverend Wright’s unacceptable fulminations, but Ira sees some currents within the Jewish community that to him often seem unfair and paranoid (though “even paranoids often have real enemies”).

Jonetta began with Obama’s singular experience of both white and African-American communities that he identified himself with (and against). She found his speech filled with the personal, and offering a special opportunity to look at what community and family mean for all Americans, and as context for our journeys encountering formative figures in our varied American lives.  She spoke of “kinships”, people in her life who were critical at some stage, and that after personal growth to another stage, there is no way you just “cut ties to them without cutting yourself”.  Jonetta expressed a vision in which race is too often a block (or obstacle) to looking at inherent realities, which for her are more importantly about class, economic disparity, and inequity in opportunity.  She sees a new stage, a fresh wind in African-American political leadership, growing from a newly-experienced  “grassroots”, in part from the “Alinsky School” of community organizing across racial lines – some exemplars being Senator Obama, Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, and Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District.

The roomful of participants jumped in, first with a concern that there is cynical and manipulative use of racial polarization to attack Obama and undermine community-building possibilities.  Continue reading

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