THE BLOG

We Are Here Because Of Ashley

03/18/2008 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Obama shows us what kind of president he will be in a crisis. Obama will be a brilliant teacher, a sincere uniter and an inspirational leader. Often accused of peddling false hope and empty rhetoric, Obama put that criticism behind him. Obama put his words into action by asking of all us to continue to perfect our union together because of Ashley.

Obama the Teacher has the courage to remind us of our dark history from our country's beginning where both women and blacks were less than. Obama the Teacher reminds us of Jim Crow's economic and emotional terrorism. Obama reminds us that the playing field is still not yet level when it comes to housing, education and health care for many African-Americans. Obama reminds us the black Marines like his former Reverend came home to face discrimination from a county they fought and bled for. Obama also reminds us blacks that we need to move past victimhood.

Obama the Uniter illuminates the resentment that some white Americans feel too. Like some blacks, some whites say things behind closed doors that most, except mavericks like Geraldine Ferraro, won't say in public. Obama the Uniter uncovers our hidden resentments and ask all of us to do better. Obama leverages his unique heritage as a mixed race man with immigrant roots to speak truth to power. Obama realizes that together we can turn the page or silently-at-odds, we can remain mired in the past governed by our country's darkest and longest, running secret. Obama reminds us that we can hate the sin, but still love the sinner and bring the sinner into the now:

"Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. 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 the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. 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 of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American - and yes, conservative - notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

Obama the Leader urges us to turn the page on the old divisive politics. Everyone. Black, White, Asian, Latino, Rich, Poor, Young, Old, Liberal, Conservative, Male and Female. Obama the Leader urges us that together we have to and will do better. Don't let them rope-a-dope us and distract us with phony arguments about flag lapel pins. We care about the economy, education, health care and war that should never have been authorized by Senator Clinton. We are exhausted by "gotcha" politics. We have seen the future and it is Barack Obama. We have seen the past and it is the Right and the Clintons of late.

It is clear that Senator Clinton won't surpass Obama's pledged delegate lead and as Nancy Pelosi correctly points out -- this is a race about delegates. Clinton can't win the nomination through pledged delegates. Even with the worst case scenarios the Clintons keep spinning, she can't pull within 100 pledged delegates. A Clinton win in Pennsylvania will be neutralized by Obama wins in North Carolina and Indiana. Clinton can't win fair and square. The races in Michigan and Florida that Clinton didn't count until she needed them to win, won't be rigged to give her an advantage. At best, they will be resolved with a wash or a minimal bump in delegates. Without both Florida and Michigan, she can't surpass him in the popular vote either.

Clinton needs the superdelegates to hand her victory. She's even hinting that they're going after pledged delegates. Clinton wants to steal the nomination by convincing the superdelegates to overrule the will of the people. The Clintons will continue to try to throw the Rovian kitchen sink at Obama to make their argument that Obama can't win. Clinton is writing campaign ads for McCain by saying that McCain unlike Obama doesn't pass the "commander-in-chief" test and by saying that Obama isn't a Muslim "as far as she knows". Bill Clinton continues to dig a deeper race hole by making arguments that sound like "it depends on the what the definition of " race baiting is.

Democrats will push back. We don't like Bush but we sure don't like Bush/Rove tactics used on a fellow Democrat. I am convinced that the pledged delegates won't overturn the will of the people. First, because it is undemocratic. But also out of pure self interest. The superdelegates will come to understand that Obama's army of over a million donors can either help or hurt them. They can either re-elect them or find and fund opponents for those seats.

Democrats can live in the past or look Barack to the future. Obama is the likely nominee absent some cataclysmic disaster. Do democrats really want Clinton and her Army of Darkness to continue to smear, denigrate and belittle Obama? Really? Like him or not, he will be ours.

Do we really want to grab defeat from the jaws of victory? The Democratic party can cling to the Clinton, old-style of divide and conquer politics or turn the page for Ashley. For me, Obama's money line was in this part of his speech:

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today - a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

The cynics will continue to blather on about Reverend Wright and the politics of guilt by association. Nothing Obama says or does on this matter will ever satisfy them short of the Reverend's public execution on Hannity and Colmes. Obama can denounce, reject, repudiate, distance himself from, condemn Reverend Wright but it will never be enough. Never. Ever.

Others, like me, will be inspired by Obama's call to action and continue this provocative and healing dialogue on race.

Let the perfection begin anew, we are here because of Ashley.