11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

In the waning days of the 2008 race for the White House, I've seen more and more articles focusing on Barack Obama's lifelong commitment to finding common ground and bringing people together. Some call it post-racial, others don't buy that, but nearly everyone, including his Republican critics, seems to agree that Barack is a more deserving heir to the "I'm a uniter, not a divider" throne. What gives?

Full disclosure requires that I admit upfront to being a big Obama admirer. Fairly or unfairly, I feel a sort of kinship with him because of parallels in our upbringings and life experiences. Like Obama, I am the child of an interracial marriage of the 1960s -- for me, a white Jewish mother and African American father -- who was reared in a Midwestern working class environment, blessed to attend some of our nation's best schools, and lost my mother to cancer at 59, far too early.

With that in mind, and for what it's worth, let me offer my pop psychology perspective on the matter.

It usually happens in elementary school -- probably in home room or on the playground -- when you realize for the first time that your perspective is different than your peers. You hear a racial slur or cultural stereotype, and rather than just accept it at face value, you instinctively think twice about what's been said and who is saying it. After all, you know first hand that not all white people are racist because your Mom is white and married a black man. And since Dad gets up and goes to work every morning, it can't be true that all black people are lazy and on welfare.

If you are lucky, as you grow older and learn to navigate the ever treacherous waters of race and culture in our society, you come to understand and rely upon this internal self-check mechanism. And, in turn, you begin to deconstruct things -- the language of social interactions, your surroundings, and people, including yourself. Chances are, by then, you've probably started college and wonder whether you can compete with the "best and brightest." And once you recognize that you do belong, you suddenly realize that your difference in perspective -- that internal self-check mechanism combined with your deconstructive imperative -- is an ace in the hole of sorts.

While most of your classmates see certain things one dimensionally, you may see them from multiple perspectives. When others might hear or comprehend only one voice, you may hear and discern many. Although you understand the black and white world, literally and figuratively, you are a unique shade of gray -- a blend that reflects dimensions of both but is impossible to define. For some, like Obama, that is empowering. For others, it is a lifelong struggle for clarity.

Consciously or subconsciously, making sense of who you are as a person -- from your racial identity to your cultural connections--- fundamentally drives your belief in, and desire to find, the common ground among us all. That, I suspect, may help explain why Obama continues striving, substantively and symbolically, to give purpose and meaning to the principle that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".