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. There was an observation that the “rules of the game” in our society, sound-bite frenzy, perhaps even our laws, did not allow us to get to a clear cultural moment of building community. Another spoke of Obama’s description of the “cringe factor” with his beloved and loving white grandmother as “picking off a scab” exposing the impacts of our limitations. Are there different lenses, through which we can see (from and into) our different and linked families and groups, to open discussion on how we are bound together as community?
A participant pointed out that the castigation of Reverend Wright is not shared by at least the “left” within the black community and that it is proper to denounce a society and government built on slavery, and one that interned Japanese in camps, among other offenses. Ira replied that he certainly did not see the media clips of Rev. Wright sermons as correct, or fundamentally acceptable. But what was remarkable about Obama’s speech is that while responding politically, it injected his personal experience and inner feelings into giving context to what divided us and what kept us together. Jonetta responded that here was the dynamic of the cultural moment, the opportunity to open up this kind of personal speech toward building something. Again, she cited this new African-American political leadership that can move with mobility into power in this society, without “carrying the collected anger” of Rev. Wright whose experiences and battles have made this new leadership possible.
Participants asked if this is about leaving “victim-hood” behind, excited by our rapid forum that held promise of looking at black church experience and white resentment and overcoming fear. A woman spoke of her experience with a project monitoring South African satellite radio talk shows. Wherever a talk topic started, it always came back to race, but the notion of exploring truth that she heard, not generalizing race, can be transformative as a society openly defines a way forward. My colleague Josh Ford brought his formative youthful considerations of the role of Malcolm X, the face of anger and black resistance, contrasted with that Martin Luther King, who though sounding prophetic warnings looked to reconcile black and white communities. Where is the place for anger in the way forward?
An African-American woman spoke soaringly of her experiences in the society, in the Church, and in her family. Black people even in the post-civil rights era struggled and often succeeded in a larger society which too often labeled them on sight and diminished their achievements. They took it with some grace in the larger world, making friends and alliances where they could – but it was the safe space of the black church in which their anger could be given full-throated expression and spiritual dimension, the hard sustaining edge of the prophetic call for society to repent. “If Obama didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be talking about Reverend Wright”, but Obama and the many like him are no surprise to her or the black community, she’s got several “smart brothers” in her family and the new leadership is all around us.
The largely white national United Church of Christ has been impacted in terms of an empowerment agenda for the black community and an opening of the larger church by the South Side Chicago UCC — beyond the painful snippets or descent into embedded anger that our televisions have conveyed as the sum total of Reverend Wright. Barack Obama was characterized as someone who enabled a “multi-vocal” conversation on race, an opportunity to take this locally into white and black communities, who need to, and often don’t, talk to each other.
Jonetta moved me (and I think all of us) deeply, when she spoke of the moment in adult life when against all racial and other obstacles, through her achievements and the gifts given her, she had a realization. She had reached the point when she decided that “this was my country”, what’s out there in this incredible society is mine and yours to embrace. “How do we get minorities to do that”? For her, “the hope from Barack” is that we’re all in this together and can’t we make it work?
I wanted to probe what might remain unbridgeable. Maybe new generations of leaders, multi-vocal conversations, societal respect and positive transformation were not so neatly in our grasp. In the context of looking at Rev. Wright and his anger, and Obama’s citing white resentment and working class anger, I asked some participants, “do you respect Right Wing anger?” One woman pondered deeply and replied she had difficulty with that worldview, but she deeply wants to hear its stories, understand its context, and build bridges where possible. To me, that’s a living definition of dialogue.
So in summary, I’ll paraphrase the headline given (to her chagrin I think) to Jonetta’s Outlook piece. We were a broadly varied group and it didn’t feel like we were all “singing from the same choir”. (I did want to go “off the record’ and ask how many there were Obama voters. I speculate, overwhelmingly so. So there is some outreach to do to broaden this conversation.) But I did cite one of my favorite moments in this whole controversy. Jon Stewart, making good fun and fodder of Obama’s “varied” family, in an aside as Stewart made transition to his next “racial analysis”, “…Imagine, a prominent politician speaking to us about race as if WE were ADULTS.” So if on Thursday, we made up a self-selected collection of “like-minded individuals”, just ponder how often like-minded individuals are at each others throats. Thank you all for an amazing evening of adult behavior and discourse, and I look forward to comments and corrections.