http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/24/opini ... ref=slogin
Let’s Not, and Say We Did
By WILLIAM KRISTOL
March 24, 2008
I shuddered only once while watching Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday.
Times Topics: Barack ObamaIt wasn’t when he posed the rhetorical questions: “Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?”
The real question, of course, is not why Obama joined Trinity, but why he stayed there for two decades, in the flock of a pastor who accused the U.S. government of “inventing the H.I.V. virus as a means of genocide against people of color,” and who suggested soon after 9/11 that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
But orators often ask themselves the convenient questions, not the difficult ones. And Barack Obama is an accomplished orator.
Nor was I shocked when Obama compared Reverend Wright, who was using his pulpit to propagate racial resentment, with his grandmother, who may have said privately a few things that made Obama cringe, or with Geraldine Ferraro, whom “some have dismissed ... as harboring some deep-seated bias.”
After all, politicians sometimes indulge in ridiculous and unfair comparisons to make a point. And Barack Obama is an able politician.
And I didn’t shudder when Obama said he could no more disown Reverend Wright than he could disown the black community. I did think this statement was unfair to many in the black community, and especially to all those pastors who have resisted the temptation to appeal to their parishioners in the irresponsible and demagogic manner of Reverend Wright.
But ambitious men sometimes do a disservice to the best in their own communities. And Barack Obama is an ambitious man.
The only part of the speech that made me shudder was this sentence: “But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”
As soon as I heard that, I knew what we’d have to endure. I knew that there would be a stampede of editorial boards, columnists and academics rushing not to ignore race. A national conversation about race! At long last!
Of course, memories are short. In 1997 President Bill Clinton announced, with great fanfare, that he intended “to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented [if he did say so himself] conversation about race.” That conversation quickly went nowhere. And just as well.
The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race.
What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.” “National conversations” tend to be pointless and result-less.
Or worse. Especially when they’re about race. In 1969, Pat Moynihan, then serving on Richard Nixon’s White House staff, wrote Nixon a memo explaining that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. ... We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” Moynihan, who was reacting against the wild escalation of racial rhetoric on all sides, was unfairly pilloried when the memo was leaked in 1970. But he was right then, and his argument is right now.
Racial progress has in fact continued in America. A new national conversation about race isn’t necessary to end what Obama calls the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years” — because we’re not stuck in such a stalemate. In fact, as Obama himself suggests in the same speech, younger Americans aren’t stalemated. They come far closer than their grandparents and parents to routinely obeying Martin Luther King’s injunction to judge one another by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.
Over the last several decades, we’ve done pretty well in overcoming racial barriers and prejudice. Problems remain. But we won’t make progress if we now have to endure a din of race talk that will do more to divide us than to unite us, and more to confuse than to clarify.
Luckily, Obama isn’t really interested in getting enmeshed in a national conversation on race. He had avoided race talk before the Reverend Wright controversy erupted. And despite the speech’s catnip of a promised conversation on race tossed to eager commentators, it’s clear he’s more than willing to avoid it from now on.
This is all for the best. With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.