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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Will race ever go away?

    I think it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that I am the one of the very few, very lame students at the UA who watches “”The View.””

    I can’t help it – there’s nothing I enjoy more than starting my morning with a cup of coffee and four women yelling over one another on my TV screen. Every so often, however, Barbara Walters and Co. touch on something important amid all the shrieking. This past week, it was Sen. Barack Obama’s landmark speech on race. While the speech was undoubtedly in part inspired by the controversy surrounding Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it raised far more worthwhile and long overdue questions about the discourse on race in this country. For many who view the famously vague, touchy-feely Obama campaign as largely without substance, this frank discussion of race relations came as a pleasant surprise.

    Obama’s speech questioned the nation’s approach to race directly – something that really hasn’t been discussed outside of academia in years. The current attitude toward race relations in America can be best characterized as the doctrine of color-blindness. We are instructed to treat everyone equally, and informed that though people might look different on the outside, we are really the same on the inside. Nothing about this is explicitly incorrect, save for one crucial assumption: that the world really is an equal-opportunity place, and that peoples’ chances for success are no longer tied to their race. This world doesn’t exist, and when people of any race approach race relations as though it does, that “”anger … not expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends,”” as Obama referred to it, bubbles to the surface. His invocation of that anger was cathartic in that it acknowledged the reality of racial inequality, but also called for a radical change in our collective discussion of race – radical simply because we haven’t been asked to do so in decades.

    Most of the time, we’re urged to divorce our ideas about race from feelings of anger or passion – the militant and aggressive civil rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s seem at times counterproductive to their cause, even quaint. Anger is inevitable in a society in which the push-pull of minorities demanding that their struggles be recognized is combined with white frustration with bearing responsibility for centuries-old atrocities. At the university level, this conflict is made manifest in the endless debate about the merits and pitfalls of affirmative action programs.

    Truly, an ideal nation is one in which differences in skin color are noticed but not condemned, in which affirmative action and racial quotas are not necessary because power is shared equally among all groups. What made Obama’s speech so extraordinary is that it acknowledged the commitment and sincerity of that world view, while reminding America of one key point: We’re not there yet.

    Last year I took a general education course called “”Race, Ethnicity and the American Dream,”” which challenged almost all of my perceptions on race relations in this country. My professor used a particular analogy that has stuck with me ever since: When we teach children about race, we try to impart the notion that everyone is equal by telling them that everyone is the same. Some people use cutesy, well-intentioned tools like the “”Skittles analogy”” – though we are different colors on the outside, we are the same on the inside. But the comparison doesn’t really work at all. Yellow Skittles are not seven times as likely to be incarcerated as red Skittles. Green Skittles are not three times as likely to have their infants die as purple Skittles. No wonder children taught to look at race this way become confused, or even angry, when they encounter scholarships and extra points on college applications for minority students – students who, they are told, are no different than themselves.

    That disconnect has plagued the debate for decades, and Obama thrust it upon the national stage in his speech. He also managed to ground his occasionally infamous idealism in practicality. He acknowledged a collective wish to move beyond race without dismissing the frustration of those who feel racial inequality most acutely. He gave a voice to decades of frustration while remaining true to his message of positive change.

    At one point during the discussion of the speech on “”The View,”” Barbara Walters mentioned that until this point Obama had managed to “”soar above race,”” pointing out his emphasis on unity and collective change, rather than grievances specific to African-Americans, as factors in his successful candidacy. Obama’s willingness to wade into grittier territory resulted in an unprecedented, honest speech. In the days following, we’ve turned our reflective lenses upon ourselves, and as a result, Obama’s campaign has taken on new significance. Whatever the outcome of this election, he has reopened a necessary dialogue on race in this country, and voters of all colors will be better for it.

    Sarah Devlin is a sophomore majoring in english and political science. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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