It can't be denied that Sen. Barack Obama's victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton amounts to an achievement on par with some of the great political coups in American history. In a Democratic primary defined more by circumstance than by policy differences, the children of tomorrow will forever be indebted to the gender and racial barriers broken by Obama and Clinton today. Of course, there are those seeking to make a general election where stark policy differences are at play a mere referendum on race. A column appearing in the Detroit Free Press on Sunday is telling on what more must be accomplished before this country can cast the albatross off its neck.
In a piece published yesterday, Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley stated that:
"The 2008 election is about many things -- the war, the economy, health care -- and at some point, education, oil dependence and America's declining urban centers. But anyone who thinks this election is about anything other than, first and foremost, race, is living about 20 years ahead of the rest of America. Everyone else knows what time it is."
There is truth to some of Riley's assertion, and her thoughts mirror closely what many in the mainstream media have to say on the subject. Following Obama's speech on race on March 18 in Philadelphia, Chris Matthews proclaimed on Hardball:
"We'll have much more on this momentous day and what I personally view as the best speech ever given on race in this country. One that went beyond 'I have a dream,' to 'I have lived the dream but have also lived in this country.'"
Okay. It was a great speech, but to use such lofty language as Matthew's, or to declare race the "first and foremost" issue in this campaign as Riley does, is as illogical as it is irresponsible. Yes, there is a race problem in the United States -- I'm sure that as a resident of Detroit, Riley is well aware of that. And yes, Barack Obama almost undoubtedly brings the greatest hope of racial reconciliation to America since, perhaps, Martin Luther King. But to dwell upon the racial aspect of this historic election is to ignore the slew of other contenders for "first and foremost" issue of 2008: a war in Iraq with no end in sight; a heaving national economy; an incoherent and ineffective immigration policy; a volatile Middle East; a crippled health care system; a self-destructive oil addiction; and an unprecedented climate crisis.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with the excitement over the possibility of a black president. We should be excited. But there is something wrong with defining such a critical election on racial lines alone. This election is not, and should not be, a referendum of black vs. white. Rather it is as Iowa Democratic spokeswoman Carrie Giddens put it plainly the night Obama fired the second shot heard 'round the world: "a referendum on the last eight years of a failed Bush administration."
In her conclusion, Riley writes that:
"Either Obama, like King, will lead a march toward the unfamiliar in an America ready to accept progress. Or, Obama will be rejected by an America that is either too entrenched to move beyond fits and starts or that believes...that it isn't time."
Riley's conclusion is dangerous, and does Obama a disservice by marginalizing the stark policy differences separating his candidacy from that of Sen. John McCain. The fact that this country continues to grapple with racial unrest is apparent in the proliferation of such arguments as Riley's. Only when we can look beyond the race of our candidates in favor of the real issues -- only then will Barack Obama, and racial justice in America, have won.
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