Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday had a simple message. We can come together and create the America we all see as the Ideal - a place of equality and freedom, compassion and kindness - or not. As he reminds us in every speech, this change in direction is not about him, it is about us, we are the ones who must choose how we want to live our lives, how we want to think, feel, and act. I was thinking about his speech when I stopped at the grocery store to buy some milk, bread and juice. At the checkout I started talking to the young woman bagging my groceries and the cashier, both African-Americans, one about my age, the other just under 20. As we talked about St. Patrick's day and Easter coming so close together and what we all planned to do this Sunday, the young girl shared that her father had died on St. Patrick's Day. I was surprised and asked her how and when. She said it happened when she was 14 years old, that it was a gang-related death, and that she remembers it vividly because she had awoken that day so happy to celebrate St. Patrick's Day before tragedy struck.
It made me think of my father's death (which was age-related) and how unlikely a gang-related death is among my friends and their families. The essence of Barack's speech was here and now, the inequalities around us because of race, socioeconomics, gender, and religion are big; we can choose to ignore them or choose to discuss and change them. The differences between the experiences of children raised in communities where gang-related deaths are a norm and that of affluent communities where they are not are huge. It reminded me of my experience on the Grand Jury last year when a DA told us that "it's not hard to stay out of prison." I disagreed. I do not think it is equally 'easy' for a young black male from South Central LA to stay out of prison as it is for an affluent white male from West Los Angeles. I think that would be analogous to saying it is as easy to hit a home run playing on a Little League field as at Dodger Stadium. As the "prison experiment" at Stanford University showed, evil behavior arises when good people are put in systems that foster evil. The playing fields - the systems - are not equal when 1/10 African-American men are in prison compared to 1/100 for everyone else. Conversely, if we look at our social systems and their histories, we may be able to change them to enhance goodness and reduce evil.
The inequalities of race, gender, religion, and economics run deep and sometimes they are easy to see (like that of Reverend Wright's comments) and other times they are much more difficult to discern. To address them head-on, whenever they arise is the point Mr. Obama is making. Today we have an opportunity to highlight our prejudices, discuss them, and move us closer to erasing them. Mr. Obama's defense of a man he trusts and respects but his disdain for comments the man made is an example of the ideal we all might strive toward: recognizing that within us all is both good and evil, acknowledging and enhancing the good while acknowledging and reducing the evil. It is a lifelong process to choose to enhance good and reduce evil in us, and as part of the human family, it is our responsibility to help one another in these efforts. When we recognize the potential for evil in ourselves (prejudices, greed, envy, hatred) we will not be so frightened of it in others, and when it arises we can be aware of it and choose to let it go. I am again greatly encouraged that a political leader exemplifies human good - honesty, respect, and love - so overtly in a political campaign and I believe that he is already helping us move our country and its social systems in that direction.