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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?
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