Obama's Greater Challenge
Editor’s Note: By addressing America’s longstanding divisions about race, Barack Obama took a chance that a U.S. political system dominated by angry talk-show hosts and “gotcha” campaign consultants can rise to a higher level.
In this guest essay, former Democratic congressional staffer Brent Budowsky hopes that Obama will venture even further and become a voice for the voiceless:
Barack Obama's historic speech on race is the beginning of what could become a majority coalition even more powerful than the New Deal realignment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
What Obama can now do is take the debate on racial injustice to a powerfully transforming
level that reaches across all racial and religious divisions and gives voice to the voiceless,
respect to the disrespected and power to the powerless.
What was extraordinary about the Obama speech, beyond the straight talk and the truth-telling, was that Obama was not merely speaking TO different constituencies but was speaking FOR different constituencies.
Almost as important as his discussion of race was the grace he showed towards Geraldine Ferraro and the honesty he showed about the feelings of those who are white, who face forms of injustice themselves, to remedy forms of past discrimination that they themselves did not commit.
Obama was not only speaking to blacks and for blacks, he was beginning what could be a transforming campaign of speaking not only to whites, but for whites, and not only to women, but for women, and for all others whose potential has been limited by injustice.
It is true that many women have endured glass ceilings imposed by inequity and Obama can speak for them, not only to them, for the great transformation of opportunity over injustice.
It is true that many working-class white voters have endured economic injustice, losing jobs and hope while royally compensated managers have traded their jobs for foreign workers paid pennies on the dollar. Obama can speak not only to them, but for them.
It is true that many Hispanics have endured unfair working conditions and loss of opportunity because of injustice -- and Obama can speak not only to them, but for them.
It is true that many of our troops and veterans were sent to battle without body armor and protected Humvees and returned home to inadequate health care and benefits – and Obama can speak for them, as well as to them.
The great political and moral truth in America is that there are threads of injustice competing with threads of opportunity, and that both injustice and opportunity transcend race, gender and religion.
There is much in common between the black discriminated against in housing loans, the woman denied the promotion she earned, the Catholic blue-collar worker losing his job to slave-wage workers in foreign lands, the Hispanic facing stereotypes and discrimination, and the men and women in uniform asked to risk their lives for our country without being given the body armor and Humvees by a government that applauds gigantic profits from defense contractors and oil companies but cannot take care of patients at Walter Reed.
The great moral and political truth of America, as old as the battles between Jefferson and Hamilton, is the battle between those who seek to unite the disempowered and the disrespected, to achieve historic change, versus those who seek to divide them against each other, to defend a decadent status quo, to prevent historic change.
The great battles of history have been between the uniters, who want to uplift the vast majority, versus the dividers, who want to preserve the power of the few by dividing the many against each other.
The great battles of faith have been between those who share the common ideals of Jesus, Hillel and Luther about what Kennedy called "God's work on earth" and "the rising tide that lifts all boats" versus those who act as though “greed is good,” in which helping the dispossessed is called moral hazard, as though the few at the top have some right to watch the crushing of the many, in what is really a socialism for the few, and Darwinism for the rest.
What the powerful speech of Obama has begun, and can do, and should do, is to broaden the debate from a speech about race to a debate about justice, to elevate the dialogue from a discussion of discrimination to the aspiration for empowerment, for opportunity, for the pieces of the whole united as greater than the sum of the parts -- against those who divide the parts, to protect the few.
The cause of Martin Luther King is the cause of the steelworker and mill worker. The cause of Cesar Chavez is the cause of the woman denied the promotion and the soldier denied the body armor and health care. The cause of the pulpit of every denomination is the cause of the great truth that those who have should help those who have not -- not because it helps some rather than others, but because it helps the whole, which benefits us all.
The lion may or may not lie down with the lamb, but the day that Obama can stand with Ferraro, and the day that Ferraro can stand with Obama, is the stuff that dreams are made of, when America comes true, when landslides are born, when the voiceless are given their voice, when the disempowered are given their power, when the disrespected are given their respect, and when our leaders embody the great vision of America as a true mosaic that is a beacon of hope at home, and beacon of light around the world.
These are not merely words, this is our history, and if we are large enough to rise to the occasion, now can be our time.
Brent Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and to Bill Alexander, then the chief deputy whip of the House. A contributing editor to Fighting Dems News Service, he can be read on The Hill Pundits Blog and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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