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November 4th, 2008
11:00 AM ET

How do we talk about race when the news is good?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/11/04/art.vert.obama.jpg width=292 height=320]
Keith Woods | Bio
Dean of Faculty at the Poynter Institute

We have no real experience at this as a nation. We know the American race story that begins in strife, oppression, struggle. We know the one that ends in marching and overcoming. We know it well. Throughout our history, we have talked about race relations only on the heels of injustice and unrest. We ruminate over our failures and measure success always as rising above the strife; the oppression; the struggle.

How do we talk about race when we’ve succeeded not in spite of our choices, but because of them?

It’s true that Sen. Barack Obama, apparently on the brink of becoming the first black American to win the presidency, stands on the shoulders of giants. The men and women who fought against the chains of slavery, the lynching rope, Jim Crow’s restrictions or the real and imagined residuals of engrained bigotry now buttress his gangly legs and wispy body. It feels racially treasonous to even consider talking of Obama’s historic run without exhuming that past.

Yet we are invited now to a conversation about a victory in which racism was at best only the equal of other obstacles, and may prove to have been smaller still. We are not compelled to the discussion because of what the racists did to Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis or what the police did to Rodney King in Los Angeles. We are not again asking the rhetorical and disingenuous question, “What does this say about race relations?” after the justice system or a corporate board or football team or some other piece of our social and cultural core let us down once again. What happens if, this time, voters from every racial and ethnic corner of the country chose the black man?

It’s striking to me even today that on the night he officially became the first person of color in U.S. history to accept a major party’s nomination for the presidency; a date he now shares with the “I Have A Dream” speech, Obama did not once speak King’s name. He has offered Americans, especially white Americans, a way into the new conversation about race that does not demand a run through the gauntlet of tests to prove they’ve shed their bigoted ways. All are invited to burnish their racial credentials by rubbing against the glow of his unique biography.

Imagine now that we are about to start a conversation about race. But it does not begin with a recitation of all the things this man – born in Hawaii with a white mother, white grandparents, Kenyan father, African forebears, raised some in Indonesia, some in Honolulu, lacking both the real history and the vicarious past that would speak of the racial strife, the oppression struggle –had to overcome.

Imagine that our new conversation begins with this: Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States. Where do we go from there?

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Flo Rosof

    As an American I was happy to see that we were intelligent enough to know that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with the person himself, and that we chose the person over the color. I hope, however, that Barack Obama, in his call for change, understands his call as a call to make us a better nation. I hope he calls us to become better persons, because only a nation that grows in its goodness truly grows as a nation.

    Life Development Center
    Dr. Flo Rosof
    Huntington, New York

    November 17, 2008 at 12:02 pm |
  2. Vickie Dubrovsky

    I am Canadian and very confused about your continued discussions regarding and coverage of the impact of race in the presidential election. Considering Mr. Obama's landslide vistory, I understand that Americans voted for Barack Obama because they believed he was most qualified and best suited to lead your nation during this time. Why pursue the race issue? Despite the ugly historical treatment of African Americans, current election results undeniablydemonstrate that Mr. Obama was elected by all Americans. And let's not forget even as we listen to Mr. Powell on the topic of race that both he and Mr. Obama share more than African American heritage – they are both half Caucasian. So what's the big deal now?

    I suggest we all watch Star Trek in order to overcome the silliness of intolerance and racial prejudice we ourselves build up.

    Vickie Dubrovsky

    November 5, 2008 at 6:32 pm |
  3. Fair

    It is a great thing to have an African -American president.
    Problem is almost all medias attempted to make Obama win from the start. Minimizing his big problems, praising his excuses and attacking his opponents over unimportant things. Loss of medias' fairness means the death of democracy. If all medias exercise their agendas instead of informing facts, what will happen to American future elections?
    Is it a rare case because of making the first African American president?
    I told all my friend in my original country, " Don't trust CNN any more."

    November 5, 2008 at 11:41 am |
  4. Rosie

    There is only one race-the human race, made up of many people, who came from the same beginning-Adam/Eve.
    So there has never been any biblical cause to classify the skin color as being one's race.
    We are all from the same beginning, and all of our beginning began in Africa. Africa is called "The Mother Land" because she is the beginning of all earthly things, including the beginning of the human race.
    Therefore, no matter how we classify ourselves, or what part of the world we reside, every nation's roots are in Africa, because Africa's original name is Eden.
    So all we truly need to do is stop characterizing people according to their skin tone, and look upon all individuals as being people of God.
    If we do this, the race card will have been removed from the deck. So where we go from here, depend upon our ability to cut the umbilical cord of the past. This is the Change President Obama hope to see in the coming years.

    November 4, 2008 at 5:23 pm |
  5. Paula Lang

    If Obama wins, I will really, really, really, really, really, be proud of my country.

    November 4, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  6. NM female voter

    It took a lot of courage for Obama to run and I have every hope that he will win tonight, making it worth the tremendous effort for him and his family for him to run. For me as a white woman, I am sad that my race does not see Obama as half white/half black but only as black. I will not attempt to understand how blacks will feel once Obama is elected. I expect it to be a marvelous and unexpected thrill. Moving beyond race, I would have voted for Obama no matter who his opponent was, no matter what the economy was doing or how the war in Iraq was faring. I believe he is what our country needs going forward – someone with the capacity to choose wise advisers but with the intelligence and composure to weigh input from various parties and make a good decision. I am ready to put my future and that of my children in his hands.

    November 4, 2008 at 5:07 pm |
  7. mt

    It's about common values: equal opportunity, respect, accountability, work ethic, the value of education, kindness, empathy and compassion.

    Race (and gender) no longer matter when these values are shared.

    It has simply taken us this time to get to the point where these values are lived by the majority of people of all races. The challenge is to get everyone to live them.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Mel

    Something that is almost never acknowledged when speaking of Obama is that he is not only a black man, but he is ALSO a white man. He is bi-racial. So all of the hate mongers out there who smear Obama just because of his race just look like total idiots. (as a white woman) I can't wait to have someone in office who knows what life in this country might actually be like for minorities (racism is still alive people!) and is willing to stand up to do something to change it. Someone who fights for the underdog is what we need SO BADLY.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  9. Delux

    Unbelievable.

    The fact that the author of this piece would even describe Obama as an opportunity to " burnish their racial credentials" just goes to show how far there is yet to go in American conversations about race.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:42 pm |
  10. cch

    This is such an incredible dialogue – really glad I took the time to read it all. Very good article – intelligent, civil comments overall – this is such a GOOD day to be an American.

    I especially appreciated Sharon Kitchen's comments way down there at the bottom of this thread – AMEN Sharon! Let's go do it!

    November 4, 2008 at 4:42 pm |
  11. Rosie

    We look at our past history in the positive, rather than the negative, beginning with the enslavement of the African-Negro.
    None of our history has been coincidental, but was ordered by God. God, in a conversation with Moses, spoke of his great disappointment concerning the children of Israel, and vowed to create him a people that would praise his name.[ Ps 102:18]
    So to bring this creation to pass, God ordered the steps of his White males to West Africa; where he had conditioned the descendants of Ham's son Phut, for just such a task.
    God knew how hard this would be for his dark skin people, but he also knew that this hardship would not last always, and that his dark skin people would, because of our great sufferings, become the strongest of his people. (for its through our suffering that we are made strong.)
    He also knew we would be brought to a strange uncultivated land. A land which he had prepared for just such a purpose. He also sent to this uncultivated land, a people who was accustomed to great wealth, and knew how to take his uncultivated land and turn it into a prosperous Country.
    God also knew that his White males would mix with his African females, and together would be the beginning of a nation liken unto no other nation. And it was as God had spoken unto Moses; for out of the bowels of slavery, came God's second creation- the African-American Negro.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:41 pm |
  12. David

    Whoever is elected we will still be Americans. My concern is the backlash of hate coming from the Black community. While i understand their history in American society...it is just that history. None of them lived through it...but they have a strong sense of revenge. You see it in their music, their language, their churches...so this historic election..whoever wins will only see the deepening of this divide. My biggest concern is that blacks will use the result to further their racist behavior and attitude against whites. I hope I am wrong..but I have lived long enough to doubt it.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:40 pm |
  13. sensible sue

    I would like to think race is not a factor but who are we kidding. It is!
    It's not whites voting against a black man as much as it is blacks voting for Obama only because he's black. Most I've talked to don't even know what his stance is on the issues, they just know he's black. Sounds pretty racist to me.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:22 pm |
  14. Paula Lang

    America didn't get to be the greatest country in the world by being stupid. We can't remain a special country with McSame. The Repukes can try again in 2016.

    November 4, 2008 at 4:18 pm |
  15. Jen

    Today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Let's move forward as if yesterday were a memory. Let's share a bond of brotherhood and build something greater than our individual parts.

    November 4, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  16. Sharon Kitchen

    First–we say this again,Barak Obama is the first black president of these United States of America.
    2nd–we all watch as he has his ignauguartion.
    3rd–we all roll up our sleeves and get to work with Obama/Biden and the staff they will choose to get this United States of America on the right path.........notice the word "all", no one is left out ,all are included as it will take "all" of us to do this.This will also take time.
    Mostly..........it will take our committment to the future of mankind, no matter where we all live.

    November 4, 2008 at 2:59 pm |
  17. Aubrey Whalen

    Wow, what a world we live. Just a short few decades ago the idea that a man of color could be elected President of the USA was not only unheard of or improbable but next to impossible. The hate of one man for another was so evident in all aspects of the American society that this day, whether Obama wins or loses seemed only "a dream".

    November 4, 2008 at 2:55 pm |
  18. Joe

    I hope everyone can vote for the issues that matter and not for someone because they are black or white. It is sad to say, but with 97% of African Americans it seems to be just that. I am glad to see those 97% support his plans and not just the color of the skin…..GIVE ME A BREAK!! It is funny how people on tv will say that "it's a gloriuos day that our nation can be represented by someone of color" and then right after that say "It's not about race, but the issues"....right.

    Joe from STL

    November 4, 2008 at 2:21 pm |
  19. mj

    A well-written article. I am a white male from the deep south. Many times I have lamented the fact that I, like many children in the deep south, came from a very humble background, yet common experiences and goals of diverse peoples have never been allowed to preempt ethnic, religious or racial differences. This is due, in large part, to the fact that an appeal to bigotry has served so many so well.

    During the current campaign I have contemplated on more than one occasion the seemingly mystical ability of Sen. Obama to remove color from any meaningful discussion. Even the transparent attempts by some Republicans to remind America that he is a black man were met with indifference by all but those who really didn't need that fact pointed out to them.

    I can only hope that the real "historical" significance of an Obama victory (presumed, at this point) will be that those who have benefited from defining every issue by its impact on race relations will finally disappear from the landscape. If "President Obama" is as masterful at continuing to see issues as intellectual challenges, with substantive rather than rhetorical solutions, we will have finally turned a meaningful corner.

    November 4, 2008 at 2:10 pm |
  20. Cindy

    Oh there will be plenty of ways to talk about race. For one there are blacks who are racists that will use this opportunity to use their racism as a way to think that they got ahead of the whites. If you don't believe that then you are fooling yourself.

    Then there will be the whites who hate blacks who will not be too happy if Obama wins and they will be saying a lot of nonsense and who knows what else they may try.

    An Obama win will not end racism in this country. You better believe that!

    Cindy...Ga.

    November 4, 2008 at 12:26 pm |
  21. Ryan Field

    We just don't talk about it. Period. The ultimate goal, in case you haven't been told, Mr. Woods, is to get beyond that until it's not an issue anymore.

    I think that's what Barack Obama's goal is. Someone hit me over the head with a hammer if I'm wrong.

    November 4, 2008 at 12:21 pm |
  22. jermato

    Race is playing a big part of this because any man in there right mind would know that Sen. Obama has a far better plan than Sen. McCain. I think the American people needs to let the race alone and do what is right. Where I live in Milton right outside of Pensacola Fl, there is hate and it shows. As for the California governor what he said on TV is a classic person of racial back ground and he isn't from here so Arnold you go where you come from this is Americans doing what they do. Bush will leave office with a pension I think it should be taken from him and put back in to the economy. Why should America pay him for the rest of his life when he has almost killed the young country we call America.

    November 4, 2008 at 12:06 pm |
  23. Ruben Porras

    The way we talk about race in America, the world's melting pot, is by not talking about. In forty years we’ve come so far, can we extend our thinking to what it will be like when race is in fact not an issue, but simply a minor difference that’s acknowledge. Barack Obama isn't a black man that is the president of the United States, he is instead an intelligent, charismatic, giving man that Americans believe is the person best qualified to lead this nation. It wasn’t Dr. King’s dream to see the “White Man’s Burden” effect in America but instead for us to recognized our similarities in celebration and acknowledgement as a people. President Obama is different from all Presidents of the past in that his skin color is different, but I’m sure he has many more things in common with them than different, such as valuing meaningful relationships, a patriot, looking to support others, to make the world a better place, etc. How do we talk about race when the news is good…talk about the good news, not the race.

    November 4, 2008 at 12:03 pm |
  24. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Obama as President will create so much of a future for this country and the World. The US needs Obama to win and turn a page on the racism of the past. It will not end racism. But, maybe those that have been oppressed will see the Change and get past what has happened to them in the past. Maybe the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons will see the fruits of their labors. They have fought hard. Maybe they can move on also..........

    November 4, 2008 at 12:00 pm |
  25. Sonya

    Great article and insight. Thank you.

    November 4, 2008 at 11:44 am |
  26. BHughes

    It's Alwaysabout race and the people of color are tired of it because. we have been in every part of this country since they brought us here the end is here and Obama is the first Black President of this vast country.

    November 4, 2008 at 11:41 am |
  27. Mary V., Salt Lake City, UT

    I BELIEVE in the basic goodness and fair-mindedness of AMERICA. Sure there are plenty of hate-and-fear-mongers out there, but the vast majority of us, are fair, decent people who SEE through the Republican-lies-hate-fear-and-division politics!

    GO VOTE PEOPLE!! HOPE TRUMPS HATE & FEAR!

    November 4, 2008 at 11:25 am |

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