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Jewish World Review
August 28, 2008
/ 27 Menachem-Av 5768
Does King + 45 = Obama?
On a hot August day in 1963, I sat cross-legged on my parents' living room rug in southern Ohio to watch Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. make history. His "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial made history and moved legislation.
Sen. Barack Obama will become the first non-white to accept a major party's nomination to be president on Thursday, the 45th anniversary of King's speech. Deep in my heart I do believe that somewhere King is smiling.
It was a big deal to watch the live black-and-white TV images of King making his historic speech. It was King's dream that everyone would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
At that time, it is important for young folks to know, "white" and "colored" signs were still posted over public restrooms and water fountains across the South.
In the North, we didn't have the signs, but we often still had the segregation in housing, schools, amusement parks and, most important, jobs. And when black families vacationed, we could not drive up to any hotel or motel and spend the night. More often than not, we had to sleep in our cars.
"My family didn't own slaves," I often have heard white Americans say, as if skin privilege ended with the Civil War. Black Americans of my generation know better, and our children can't afford to be fooled.
Yet, we cannot afford to wallow in bitterness either.
Obama's nomination demonstrates how much King's faith in this nation's better angels has been rewarded and how much of his dream "a dream as old as the American dream," he said has been achieved.
Presidential campaigns teach us Americans about ourselves. Some of the lessons of this one include:
(1) Racism appears to have fallen out of fashion, if not out of business. Few people will admit they won't vote for Obama because of his pigment. Yet, polls show at least 12 percent of Americans cling to the belief that Obama is a Muslim, undeterred by overwhelming evidence that he is a Christian and never was a Muslim. Yet, what if he were? Did someone hang a "No Muslims need apply" sign on the White House?
(2) Obama's biracial background may be attracting at least as many voters as it puts off. Still, as much as Americans say they believe that "race doesn't matter," it is ironic that they still need to hear a black person say it.
(3) The bigger divide that Obama's campaign has revealed is a big gap in socioeconomic class. Among whites, Obama does best among voters who are younger, better educated and more likely to have benefited from the industrial and economic changes of recent years. Sen. John McCain, like Sen. Hillary Clinton, tends to do better among older, working-class whites.
Yet, working-class blacks and whites seem to get along better than ever. Race increasingly seems to be a proxy for deeper concerns, such as whether Immigration and outsourcing to Asia threaten local jobs. Obama has talked a lot about the economy but failed, so far, to detail a strategy that can make the issue his own. "Change You Can Believe In" is a great slogan. He needs to detail what kind of change he's talking about.
(4) The word "racist" is being stretched so much that it is beginning to lose meaning. For example, some people call blacks "racist" for giving about 90 percent of our support to Obama. Those critics ignore history. Catholics, for example, turned out in numbers almost that high for John F. Kennedy in the 1960s. Various ethnic and religious communities typically show overwhelming support when one of their members has a chance to break barriers on their behalf. Besides, the critics forget how hard Obama had to work to woo black voters away from Sen. Clinton. Remember when everybody seemed to be wondering whether Obama was "black enough"? No more. Nevertheless, Obama's successes compel black Americans to catch up with changing times too. Race men like Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. complain that Obama "talks down to black people" by calling for personal responsibility. But Obama's black audiences mostly applaud enthusiastically.
Now a new concern arises in the community of black scholars, activists, bloggers and barbershop pundits: Will Obama's historic achievements make it harder to rally support for the parts of King's dream that remain undone? Probably so. That's the price of success.
The good news, whether Obama wins in November or not, is that so much of white America supports King's dream too.
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