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A More Perfect Union: Obama and Transracialism

Barack Obama's speech last week was the most inspiring speech I've seen by a U.S. president - or a major U.S. presidential candidate - in my adult life. I've seen video footage of inspiring speeches by Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy, and a number of other inspiring speeches by earlier presidents profiled on the PBS American Experience series, but this is the first time since I've been of voting age that I feel truly inspired by someone with presidential prospects.

I'd read and heard excerpts of the speech during the week, but it wasn't until yesterday that I finally set aside the time to watch Obama's 37-minute speech [transcript] in its entirety ... and I'm glad I did. I admire the way that Obama was able - and willing - to articulate issues involving race that are typically considered undiscussibles, at least in national political discussions (e.g., anger that "may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends ... but does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table"). He embraced his multiracial heritage and shed light on some of the shadows that often permeate our thoughts, feelings and judgments about other races ... and I found myself wondering how many critics of Obama's controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, have never harbored or uttered a racially motivated criticism.

Obama offered a vision for what I might call a transracial union, based on my recent rumination on building a multidisciplinary team, which was greatly enhanced by Anne's comment introducing me to the concept of transdisciplinarity. I believe that Obama is, in effect, applying one definition of transdisciplinarity in scientific research to the far more politically charged topic of race. Riffing slightly on a Wikipedia definition of transdisciplinarity:

A transdisciplinary style of research [or politics] can only arise if the participating experts interact in an open discussion and dialogue, accepting each perspective as of equal importance and relating the different perspectives to each other. Working together in a transdisciplinary way is difficult because participating scientists [or politicians] are often overwhelmed by the amount of information in everyday’s practice and because of incommensurability of specialized languages in each of the fields of expertise. Therefore people with the competence of moderation, mediation, association and transfer are needed to initiate and promote a critical and still constructive dialogue. For these individuals it is crucial to have [their] own in-depth knowledge and know-how of the disciplines [or races] involved.

I don't want to say too much about the speech, in part because I feel too many people (including myself) are participating in what seems to be a snack culture (an evocative label I first heard from my colleague, Rick Hangartner Peyman Faratin) - or what Sherry Turkle calls talk culture - subsisting on snippets of information rather than sitting down to a full meal from original sources, and I want to encourage people to see and hear the speech in its entirety.

I will say that Obama discuss racial issues from a variety of perspectives, noting that one of the core issues is that in a time of scarcity, opportunity is seen as a zero-sum game, with anger and fear operating as powerful motivators, for all races. Unfortunately, however, this anger and fear can motivate us to focus on distractions rather than the problems that transcend racism (or other isms). As he notes in describing his motivation for composing and delivering this speech:

... Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

In this brief respite from snack culture, I decided to dig around a little for a fuller meal of what Reverend Wright, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, whose motto is "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian", really said. I found a blog, Truth about Trinity, and a YouTube channel for Trinity Chicago, that provided more context beyond the snippets that have been broadcast and rebroadcast in the major media.

Indeed, as the snippets show, Wright has been critical of the U.S. in some of his sermons, but I seem to remember Jesus reportedly being critical of the ruling political, economic and social powers of his time, and that securing the freedom of speech - especially critical speech - was one of the goals of the founding fathers of this country.

In the snippets being aired on many television stations, Wright is quoted as saying

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye...and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

In a fuller snippet of his sermon, these criticisms are accompanied by an advocacy of a "God of love and justice".

Wright's sermon starts out with a reference to Psalm 137,

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
       happy is he who repays you
       for what you have done to us-

9 he who seizes your infants
       and dashes them against the rocks.

He notes how this psalm represents "a move from paying tithes to payback ... from worship to war" culminating in "the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred". Although I would not have chosen the incendiary language he uses, the only fact I would dispute is his claim that "we never batted an eye": there are - and have been - many Americans, of all races, religions and nationalities, who have objected strongly to the excesses and extremes of the American government.

In another now infamous sermon, Wright is quoted as saying

"The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" and "[t]he government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people... God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme".

Slate has recently provided a helpful AIDS Conspiracy Handbook, which leaves me very skeptical about Wright's claim regarding the government inventing HIV for genocide, but I firmly agree with his claims that our government has supported illegal drug smuggling in the past, currently "boasts" the highest incarceration rate in the world, and many states have passed "three strikes laws" ... which were advocated by former president Bill Clinton (leading me to wonder how former first lady Hillary Clinton feels - or felt - about this issue).

I want to close by revisiting - and reapplying - some of the thoughts and feelings I wrote about in reaction to Hurricane Katrina, One World: Disasters and Responses:

I'm also reminded of Oriah Mountain Dreamer's ideas about "us and them" in response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and how it applies more generally to suffering and our responses to it.

I ask, "How can I BE the peace I want to see in the world, today?" Not, how can I CREATE the peace- but how can I BE it- because it becomes clearer and clearer to me that violence and war are not just "out there" but also inside me.

She goes on to suggest that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them".  She gives examples about substituting "some of us" for "them" or "they" as we think about what others have done (and I would extend this to what others are going through).  In her audiobook "Your Heart's Prayer", she further extends this from "some of us" to "sometimes I".

Although I would not choose the same vocabulary as Reverend Wright, if I substitute "I am angry at America" for "God damn America", and accept Oriah's invitation, I am willing to admit that "Sometimes I am angry at America for killing innocent people... sometimes I am angry at America for treating our citizens as less than human. Sometimes I am angry at America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Continuing on withs my earlier rumination:

I believe that most people, placed in similar circumstances, will tend to have similar responses, with respect to their feelings, thoughts, actions and reactions.  I also believe that people can learn new, possibly "unnatural", ways of feeling, thinking and acting (Scott Peck, in "The Road Less Traveled", points out that it is natural to defecate in one's pants, but most of us learn new behaviors in this dimension of life). Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her poem, "The Invitation", says:

I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I can empathize with the suffering and the responses to that suffering in the wake of hurricanes, tsunamis, military invasions and diseases. I hope that these events will create openings and opportunities for people to rise to meet their challenges in a loving and compassionate way.

Returning to Obama, and noting another connection with transdisciplinarity, in the face of mounting challenges, I will finish with this excerpt from his speech, which exemplifies an audacity of hope about working together to form a more perfect union to meet these challenges:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.


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