Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Testing the Power of "Just Words"

Until the ugliness started this month, race and gender were benign issues, at least on the surface, of the Democratic contest as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama congratulated themselves and each other for breaking through barriers of prejudice in American life.

But centuries of oppression, hatred and anger are not so easily wiped out by symbolic candidacies, and Obama is making the speech of his political life today to repair the damage to his campaign by the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who wears dashikis and does not speak softly.

In his first response last week, Obama invoked Robert Kennedy's plea for racial unity after the murder of Martin Luther King, as he no doubt will again today, under the influence of Ted Sorensen, who saw first-hand the violence of the 1960s and emerged as a soft-spoken liberal corporate lawyer.

But Wright and Sorensen reflect more than Obama's mixed racial heritage and the generational gap between their lives and his own. Below the surface of race (and gender) are internal strains of economic class and culture that are not easily resolved.

In the 1960s, Black Power advocates and the Black Panthers were pitted against Dr. King's message of non-violence and reconciliation, just as the Women's Movement was riven by a divide between radical Feminists, college-educated and privileged, and working women who resented "Women's Lib," even as they benefited from the political consciousness it raised. The victims of prejudice are no more monolithic than those who practice and profit from it.

Obama will try to bridge those gaps and more as he is put to the severe test of reaching beyond rhetoric into the hearts of voters with both hopes and fears about the change he represents. At the very least, the results will show how much "just words" matter in American life.

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