Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly says that Fox News anchor Brit Hume referred to Barack Obama's speech on race as "blaming whites." Hume did not say or imply that.

Invited to Wrestle in a Racial Mud Pit, Obama Soars Above It

Marty Nesbitt, a friend of presidential candidate Barack Obama's, tears up during Obama's address on race and politics in Philadelphia yesterday.
Marty Nesbitt, a friend of presidential candidate Barack Obama's, tears up during Obama's address on race and politics in Philadelphia yesterday. (By Mike Mergen -- Bloomberg News)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Before Barack Obama took to the podium yesterday, I was pretty angry at how slimy the presidential campaign had become. And my plan was to write a screed about those whites who want Obama to "transcend race" while they get to hold on to their racist ways.

In the latest episode, inflammatory snippets of sermons by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, had been fashioned into a political bombshell by Obama's opponents. Right-wing TV commentators then detonated it with ignorant vitriol, including an insinuation by Pat Buchanan that Wright was a black David Duke, the former leader of the white terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, and that Obama was the disciple of a hateful man.

I could go on and on.

Then Obama spoke, and I had a mind-altering experience. After hearing him deliver what was essentially a treatise on faith, hope and charity, I no longer wanted to risk getting stuck in a racial tar pit with Buchanan or any of the others. I just wanted to hop on that Obama bandwagon and head for new America.

The desire to rise up out of the racial muck was intensified with every conversation I had about the speech.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who co-chairs the Maryland for Obama campaign, hit the nail on the head when he told me: "Obama has the ability to elevate our thinking beyond the chicken-yard scratching and biting. He calls on us to soar like eagles. And if he can't always take you there, he can sure dare you to go."

Edwin Chapman, an African American physician who lives in Mitchellville, said: "The big challenge for Obama was not to be portrayed as the black candidate and not to be perceived as denying his blackness. It would not have worked if he had done like Tiger Woods and called himself a 'cablinasian.' It worked because Obama came off as a Renaissance man."

Another friend, Sidney Strickland, an African American attorney and co-founder of a bank in Laurel, said: "He spoke frankly about the racial divide, the gap in black and white perceptions of reality. And because of his personal story, rooted in having a black father and white mother, he was able to offer himself as the bridge."

Yet, as Obama made clear in the speech, the racial gap is huge, and it would be a stretch indeed for anyone to even imagine that it could be spanned entirely by one man in a lifetime. He certainly knew about the breadth of the gap inside my head.

"Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race and racism continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways," he said. "The memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and the bitterness. . . . That anger is not always productive. Indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems. . . . But the anger is real, it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm."

Then Obama went on to say something that almost made me audaciously hopeful. He had the courage to connect slavery to black suffering today.

"Many of the disparities that exist . . . can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation," he said. He went on to connect the achievement gap with the legacy of inferior, racially segregated schools that still haven't been fixed "50 years after Brown versus Board of Education."

He noted that legalized discrimination had prevented blacks from owning property or getting jobs or loans to purchase homes. The result has been the inability of countless blacks to accumulate wealth and pass on the benefits to their children. Obama linked a lack of economic opportunity to crime and poverty.

Of course, some still could not handle the truth. Brit Hume of Fox News, for instance, thought Obama was "blaming whites" -- even though Obama specifically called on African Americans to take responsibility for their lives.

That was enough to make me want to wallow in the muck again. But Obama had made a point that was bigger than Hume or Buchanan or even himself. To get where you need to go, you've got to know where you came from. And even if Obama doesn't make it all the way to the White House, I sure like where he's taken me so far.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company