BARACK OBAMA could have made a much shorter speech. He could have protected his campaign yesterday by denouncing and rejecting his former pastor, Rev.Jeremiah Wright, as a crank. Then Obama could have rushed on, hoping that someone else's scandal would push his own out of the headlines.
Instead, Obama took the opportunity to engage the question of race in America, starting a bold, uncomfortably honest conversation. He asked Americans to talk openly about the deep wells of anger and resentment over racism, discrimination, and affirmative action. It's a call to break out of the country's racial stalemate and finally reach a new national understanding.
Obama condemned Wright's comments about the country's failures on race - captured on videotape and rebroadcast in an endless loop on TV talk shows and YouTube - as "divisive" and "incendiary." But, Obama added, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," or his own white grandmother, who loves Obama deeply but who nevertheless has "uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. . .These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."
Here is the guy with the funny name owning his and his country's full identity, dimples and warts. That's striking in a place where blacks have passed as white to avoid racism, and where European immigrants have shortened multisyllabic names to fit in.
Obama's speech was also a powerful and plain-spoken history lesson. It touched on slavery, the Civil War, and the forces that affected Wright and other African-Americans who lived through the 1950s and '60s, decades of flamboyant racism and angry reaction. Obama spoke of European immigrants who built their lives from scratch. And he talked of the resentment that white Americans can feel "when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." Pulling such private bitterness into the open acknowledges that the American struggle to be a more perfect union has at times taken a toll.
Still, this is the land of waving grain and optimism. The country never stops churning out the hope that the worst can be overcome. And this hope has long been a seed of great progress. Obama knows this, and this conviction marks him as an entirely different man than his inflammatory pastor.
"The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society," Obama said. "It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old - is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."
Of course, it isn't. "Change" can seem like a campaign cliché, but it is also a prominent fact of American life. From the cotton gin to computers, from slavery to companies led by African-American CEOs, even seemingly impossible dreams become facts.
There are still national failures: grinding poverty, segregated schools, and children whose families can't afford the healthcare that their neighbors take for granted.
That's why, as Obama said, voters have to choose. They can focus on scandal and spectacle, on who said what outrageous thing. They can focus on the racial dynamics of who votes for whom. But the truer course is to focus on building a better America, one with stronger schools, better health care, reliable voting machines, fairer taxes, strong roads and bridges, and a healthy economy.
Voters have to choose, and in doing so they should seize this chance to forge their self-interests into a new, truly United States of America.