Given that he was determined to talk about race – a mistake in itself – Obama could at least have offered something truly “new.” He could have delivered an oration that spent less time discussing the divisions between us, and more explaining why there are plenty of reasons to believe that America’s racial divisions can and will heal. He could have pointed out that racism must be waning when some of America’s most beloved icons – from Tiger Woods to Colin Powell to Oprah Winfrey – just happen to be black.
He could have noted the countless hours and dollars Americans – regardless of ideology or party – donate to help others, regardless of color, both here at home and across the world. He could have observed that today’s young people are much more comfortable in a multi-racial country than any generation before them. He could have praised the color-blindness that characterizes the military and the sports worlds, and offered them as models for American society in general. And he could have celebrated the Constitution as a founding document expressing unprecedented ideas – establishing a moral framework and a political system that enabled civil rights leaders to claim equality without violence, and on the basis of uniquely American values – rather than denouncing it as “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.”
After the events of the past couple weeks, completely recovering his political footing will not be easy for Obama. But here’s what he needs to do. Give the whole topic of race a rest. Stop proclaiming it to be “an issue this nation cannot afford to ignore right now” – a statement that elicits a response from many Americans that’s reminiscent of a man’s when his wife tells him that “we need to talk.” Resist the temptation to exploit every ambiguous remark about race by attributing it to invidious motives. And the next time that a racial controversy erupts (and it will), take the high road. Rather than trying to score cheap political points by comparing someone like Geraldine Ferraro to Jeremiah Wright, give her the benefit of the doubt.
Above all, Barack Obama must model the generosity of spirit that Americans of all colors need to demonstrate when sensitive racial issues arise. It won’t be easy. But it is the only way that he can re-establish his credentials as the apostle of a “new kind of politics” – and the best way to prove that his pastor’s hate-filled racial views truly are not his own.