E Pluribus Unum

The issue of race is ever with us: complex, a national conundrum, and a page in American history that is dark beyond measure. Consider the events of last week, crystallized by the repeated screening by news outlets of Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., delivering selected sermons wherein he referred to America as the "U.S. of K.K.K. A" and linked the 9/11 attacks to a corrupt foreign policy. What made the comments so explosive was not just the content, but that Rev. Wright had been Barack Obama's pastor for almost two decades.

Obama's statement that Rev. Wright "has never been my political advisor, he's been my pastor," did not prevent conservative radio and cable talk show hosts from opining on them at great length. Soon other cable news networks followed suit, fielding pundits to offer their analyses, while reacting with shocked indignation to Wright's statements. Ultimately the discussion came down to whether Obama should be held responsible for the comments of his pastor. Sean Hannity, conservative commentator with the Fox network, suggested that Obama resign from the Senate and close down his campaign. After all, Obama had attended the Trinity Church of Chicago for almost two decades, was married by Rev. Wright, who also baptized his two daughters.

The linkage of Obama to the selected sermons of Wright is disingenuous and simply wrong. Will any of us take responsibility for the outrageous comments of a family member &

an errant uncle, an ill-educated cousin? Consider that no one ever suggested that those Catholics in the congregation, who sat in pews week after week, should be held accountable for the actions of those priests who were pedophiles.

What none of the news outlets seemed inclined to explore was a far larger question that begged to be answered: what was the source of Rev. Wright's anger &

an anger that was put on full display on network screens and YouTube and clearly shocked many viewers?

Perhaps part of the answer is that America still struggles with the abiding remnants of slavery and its attendant racism, which are still part of our nation's DNA, made manifest over the last century by the insidious and morally bankrupt policy of separate but equal and institutionalized in the late 1890s by Plessy v. Ferguson. While Plessy was struck down in Brown v. the Board of Education, Jim Crow laws across America continued to perpetuate the idea that in public accommodations &

schools, cafes, transportation, waiting rooms and even drinking fountains &

we as a people should remain segregated. It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that Jim Crow was finally eliminated.

Attitudes, of course, cannot be legislated and in so many ways America remains a segregated society. In urban and rural areas across America, inferior schools represent an insidious de facto form of segregation, surrounded by a profound poverty which levels people of color. Generations of children have had their futures tragically narrowed; black families are under enormous pressure; and a disproportionate number of black men are incarcerated (one in 10 black males are in jail).

Socially, there is little overlapping of races, hence while the rhetoric of equality and integration are voiced by both whites and blacks, the reality is that there continues to be two Americas. One white and one black.

White America doesn't understand that there are many angry African-Americans who have been and continue to be wounded by America's racism. Whites are not in the pews of black churches, hence are not privy to the sermons which are delivered from the pulpits, often framed by what is called "black liberation theology," emphasizing Afrocentrism and social justice, while viewing the Bible as a guide to combating oppression of African-Americans. As one black journalist commented on "Meet the Press," there were a lot of "amens" during Rev. Wright's sermons, and indeed the video footage shows the congregation standing, clapping and nodding their heads. The reality is that white America is, in the main, insulated from these deep veins of simmering anger, and are taken aback when it surfaces.

One black journalist referred to 11 a.m. each Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America. And when people are separated from one another, it becomes all too easy to create and nurture stereotypes and blacks, like whites, have not been spared. We continue to view one another across a chasm of differences. We gather our grievances and hold them close.

What recent events prove is how difficult bridging that cultural and political canyon will be, something which Obama has discovered of late. It is and has been his wish to transcend race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and politics in a search to find common ground. This is about far more than one man's presidential candidacy. It is about E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One. Obama has stepped forward. The question remains: will we as a people respond? The rip tides of entrenched opinion, of bigotry, of individuals who would bring down his candidacy for reasons that seem disturbingly beyond mere ideology are now in full sway. Obama has been portrayed as a Muslim Manchurian Candidate; an Iowa Senator opined that the Middle East will be dancing in the streets if he is elected; for a time he wasn't black enough; now, suddenly, he is too black. But if America can have a dialogue, however wrenching, about race and if we as a nation can, as Obama suggested, transcend our differences, it will be a defining moment. One last point: if you, the reader, did not hear Obama's speech of last week in its entirety, do so. It's historical and it's remarkable.

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