Uniter, divider … or both?

This seems like an appropriate time to analyze the candidacy of Barack Obama, and what we have learned about the candidate as a result of the primary process.

Obama burst onto the scene in 2004 claiming to be a uniter. ("There are not red states and blue states. There is only the United States of America." ) But the bitter dispute with Hillary Clinton, plus the infamous Rev. Wright videos, have reduced Obama to everyone else’s level. To some extent, he has become a polarizing figure — like any other politician.

It was inevitable. It was not possible for an African American to emerge as a serious contender for the presidency without stirring up controversy.

We might blame it on Hillary Clinton and her surrogates, who explicitly made race an issue. We might blame it on Rev. Wright, whose over-the-top sermons were compounded by his National Press Club circus act. Or we might blame it on Obama himself, for getting embroiled with such controversial African American leaders in Chicago.

But let’s face it:  one way or another, Obama’s race was going to become a source of controversy and division. America’s ugly underbelly is its (bitter) history of slavery, segregation, lynching, ghettos, and discrimination (whether overt or tacit). Obama’s candidacy brings that ugly history to consciousness. That was bound to be inflammatory and divisive.

But it is for precisely this reason that Obama offers an opportunity for the USA to move beyond that ugly racial history — or at least to take a big, symbolic step in that direction. You can’t bring about reconciliation by ignoring the issue. As Andrew Sullivan likes to say, the only way past it is through it.

What I’m saying is, it’s possible for Obama to be both a divider and a uniter. Bring the poison to the surface, then lance the boil.

I still see Obama as a uniter. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers shares this anecdote:

My grandfather, 86 years old and a veteran of WWII, just gave me a call. He was calling all of his grandchildren to let them know what an important night this was in the history of our country.

Grandpa drove a truck for over 50 years, and he told the story of how he drove with a team of drivers, 2 white (including him), and 4 black. When they stopped at the truck stops, the black drivers had to use seperate restrooms and showers, and had to eat in a small room in the back of the kitchen. Grandpa and his co-driver would eat in the back with the rest of the team, and while they didn’t speak of it at the time, they knew it was wrong yet felt powerless to change it, and believed that it would never change.

Tonight, he told me, we have come full-circle. Many people, especially the younger generation who supported Obama, will never fully realize the historical import of what happened tonight. But he wanted his grandchildren to know this story that he had never told us, and it was the second time in my 33 years that I have heard my grandpa cry.

A lot of us left-wing, bleeding-heart, liberal, elitist types are moved by stories like that one. The audacity of hope, indeed.
Obama over the top 2(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty; via Andrew Sullivan)


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Emerging From Babel » Uniter, divider … or both?
  2. karina
    Jun 05, 2008 @ 02:14:01

    I think that he is a uniter and divider.


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