Jill Porter: Are we ready to cross Obama's bridge?

Posted: March 19, 2008

BARACK OBAMA was hardly gone from the stage yesterday - pausing on his way to give a kiss to a local superdelegate - when the murmurs rose from the crowd.

Historic. Unprecedented. Extraordinary.

In confronting the explosive topic of race, Obama dared to empathize with the anger and bitterness some blacks and whites feel towards each other but rarely express in "polite company."

He dared to acknowledge our country's "racial stalemate" and the way it distracts us from the real "culprits": vanishing jobs, poor education, war.

Obama voiced a reality most politicians want to exploit or avoid.

Afterwards, I wondered: Are we ready for this?

Are whites and blacks ready to acknowledge our bias and the legitimacy of laments on the other side?

Are we ready to talk? To listen?

Are we ready to abandon the safety of political correctness and air our grievances rather than let them continue to corrode our souls?

If so, in the speech that marked the magnificent measure of the man, Obama paved the way.

"I really think it was historic," said Jay Leberman, head of the Perelman Jewish Day School.

"His honest explanation about the realities of our society" was remarkable, he said.

Obama's campaign has been mired in racial quicksand over the incendiary rants of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, against whites and America.

Yesterday, Obama condemned Wright's comments as "distorted," "wrong" and "divisive."

But rather than dismiss him as

a "crank or a demagogue," Obama attributed the comments to "a legacy of discrimination."

"For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and bitterness of those years," Obama said in startling candor.

It may not be expressed in front of white people, he said, "but it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table.

"And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews," he said.

There's a "similar anger" felt by segments of the white community, he said, who've worked hard and still lost their jobs, their pensions and their dreams.

White resentments over welfare and affirmative action, while also unspoken in public, "have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation," Obama said.

But "we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds" by "working together," he said.

Ray Jones found Obama's words "poignant" and personal.

"It made it all right to rethink our positions about race," said Jones, co-founder of Men United for a Better Philadelphia.

"You didn't feel guilty about having an opinion you couldn't talk about in the open.

"It gave you a bridge. No politician has ever done that."

I don't know how much of Obama's message of unity will survive the sound bites and the partisan assassins in the media. I can imagine parts of his speech being excised and repackaged to inflame racial passions.

What a terrible shame that would be.

And this isn't even about the political campaign.

I'm still not sure Obama is my candidate; my feminist allegiances and concern about his inexperience still tilt me towards Hillary Clinton.

But no one could witness a speech like Obama's without recognizing his power to inspire, to appeal to our better natures.

And no one who's ever harbored a silent racial grudge could miss the liberating opportunity he gave us to admit it and move on.

But are we ready?

After the speech yesterday, I saw a black man and a white man, both guests at the invitation-only event, embrace in affirmation of Obama's message.

A third man came over and put his arms around both of them. I honestly, happily, can't remember if he was black or white.

Maybe that's the answer to my question.

If we're ready to run a black man and a white woman for president, maybe we're ready for racial candor and reconciliation.

Maybe we can meet halfway on the bridge Obama built. *

E-mail porterj@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5850. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/porter

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