03/19/2008 11:11 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Racial Unity: How Will It Play In Pennsylvania?

Racial Unity: How Will It Play In Pennsylvania?
Carlotta Cooper

The issue of race is front and center in the Democratic primaries right now thanks to several recent events. Prompted by a need to more deeply explain the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery rhetoric and his thoughts on the subject of race, Senator Obama delivered a reasoned, eloquent speech in, appropriately enough, Philadelphia, the "city of brotherly love." His call to overcome the stalemate in terms of race where we find ourselves now in America is well taken.

As reported elsewhere on the Huffington Post, Obama appeared on ABC's Nightline and reflected on the possible political impact of his landmark speech:

Obama believes giving a speech on race was necessary but concedes that it is a politically risky move. By embracing race and bringing it out in the open, he admits that he could be perceived as "the race candidate."

"Absolutely," he said. "And so, hopefully this is something that we have talked about, we've lifted up, it will spur discussion, like Robert Kennedy's wonderful metaphor, "ripples of hope." You know, you throw a rock into a pond and those ripples will go out. We don't know where those ripples will go. I have no idea how this plays out politically. But I think it was important to do."

Caught up in another five weeks of fierce campaigning against Senator Hillary Clinton before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, how will this gloves-off discussion of race affect the voters? In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and the more rural T-zone of Pennsylvania, will Pennsylvania voters welcome the glare of national attention turned to race in their state? Or, are they more interested in a looming economic recession and lost jobs? Are pocketbook issues, perhaps understandably, more important to them right now? And, what about the Iraq war? The Allenton Morning Call has a list of the war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq who hale from Pennsylvania. (I lost count at over 150 dead because President Bush was on CNN telling me how well the war was going.)

One part of Senator Obama's speech which has not been remarked upon very much is his mention of white anger. I think we heard a little white woman anger from Geraldine Ferraro a couple of weeks ago when she contrasted her position as a woman running for VP, something of a token 20-plus years ago, to Senator Obama's wild success now, running as a successful presidential candidate in his own right.

Here are Senator Obama's words this week:

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.

If you live in an area, as I do, where graduating from high school is a cause for celebration, where many whites don't have college degrees, and being a mechanical bull operator is a possible career path, (I saw that in the paper this week), there is the kind of anger and resentment that Senator Obama discusses. Not necessarily toward blacks in particular. But toward anyone who has more or who is perceived as trying to take away what you have.

This resentment doesn't rise to the level of wearing sheets or burning crosses, thank God, but it affects people's thoughts and ideas. It shapes their attitudes. In a similar way, Senator Obama discussed the attitudes of some people in the black community who have been affected by events in the past.

No one can erase the past. I think Senator Obama and others of his generation wisely realize that leaders like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright are leading people astray when they emphasize the things that divide us. It's the present and the future that matter now. What's important are finding the things that unite us -- things like improving the economy, ending the war in Iraq, improving education in the United States, and providing health care for all Americans. Those things should apply to all Americans, regardless of race.

Now, how will Senator Obama's speech play in Pennsylvania? To the extent that the discussion focuses solely on race, I think Senator Obama will be harmed. "Race" as a topic will single him out as "the black candidate" and alarm some white voters. The mechanical bull operator will not be happy or interested much in that message, I'm guessing. The voters will view him as someone who is trying to upset the status quo and take something away from them. That mechanical bull operator may be very glad to just have the job he's got. He doesn't want to talk about somebody else's problems. He wants to hear how he can get a better job.

In a general election, the issue of race will hurt Senator Obama even more. Perhaps to offset this possibility I've noticed that the Obama campaign has had several old white guys on TV today speaking as Obama surrogates. That's probably a smart move, but I don't know if it will help. Can Obama talk about other things besides race now? Or, will he be solely defined by this one subject? I think the voters in Pennsylvania (and the other upcoming primary states) will want to hear about other subjects close to home. If Senator Obama can't gain traction on other topics it will give a decided advantage to Senator Clinton.

As a subject for national debate, Senator Obama's speech was uplifting and insightful, even inspiring. We should all thank him for his words.