The importance of history, the role of our own personal lives, a recognition of the power of our ideas and the stains of our faults, the emphasis on the strength of both inequality and hope. Barack Obama’s speech on race in the United States, on the terrible patterns of the past and the foundational hopes and ideas of this nation, embodies much that I have found in trying to understand people’s lives on their own terms, those lives as both driving the same repeating patterns and offering the possibility of change.
It was luck that I had decided to post a series on race today, and Obama’s speech, and the array of reactions today, were more than worthy inclusions—they were necessary. Obama captures the movement towards a new way of managing our problems, of integration and reconciliation, of the best ideas presented clearly rather than as decisions hidden behind the doors of power. Oh, he is a hard-core democrat, and I have as much cynicism about the possibility of our government working towards change. History provides both lessons, of tragedy and triumph, and always at a cost. And yet…
Obama is reflexive, he sees the limits of knowledge, he sees the value of emotion as well as reason, he can judge vociferous ideas and statements but still cherish a person, he draws on his own experience to think about the larger lessons. He is, as he says, against our continued tendency to “simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.” We simplify politics, we simplify brain biology, we simplify anthropology—and thus distort our engagement with our own larger reality.
Race is about that distortion, and using that distortion to justify the discrimination Obama so eloquently argues against. It is an old theme in anthropology, the theme that really founded the field in the United States. There is no manifest destiny in our biology; we forge it, for ourselves and too often against others. It is time to turn the page, both back to our foundational moments and forward to what we can now do.