Wednesday, March 19, 2008

E Pluribus, Unum

Four years ago, Barack Obama burst upon the national stage with an inspirational address, decrying those who would seek to divide the nation. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America," he thundered, "there's the United States of America."

Yesterday, an embattled Obama articulated a far more realistic vision of the role race plays in our society. He acknowledged that there is indeed a black America and a white America. That a racial divide runs so deeply through our nation that we fail to credit or understand each other's grievances. That anger on either side of that divide is so real, and so profound, as to have produced a racial stalemate.

And yet, precisely because of that dour realism, this second speech was far more compelling than Obama's debut. To understand that apparent paradox, it's worth considering what Obama actually said about the state of race in America.

First, let's sketch the broad contours of the debate into which he was inserting himself. There are those on the left who contend that race is chimerical, a tool used by elites to divide the working classes. On the right, culture has largely supplanted genetics as the explanation of choice for racial disparities, in either case, rendering the problem all-but-intractable and absolving society of blame. And, as Obama himself pointed out, in the broad American center silence has been the rule - resentments fester just below the surface, but are rarely voiced in public. Into that void stepped the junior senator from Illinois.

As is his wont, Obama drew upon the most compelling elements of each of these visions, without succumbing to their excesses. He echoed the classic leftist critique of political and business leaders who exploit racial divisions to distract "attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze." And he affirmed the right's insistence on the danger of "becoming victims of our past" and the need for "taking full responsibility for our own lives."

Then he went a step further. "Trinity," Obama said "embodies the black community" in all its richness and all its shortcomings, and he is as much a part of that community as it is of him. And buried in that is a radical claim about the nature of America. By speaking of the joys of communal life and the strength he draws from his Christian faith, Obama was making the case for the importance of the particular amidst the universal. That's why he chose to read aloud from his memoir a passage describing his sudden epiphany that Trinity was built upon a foundation of collective experience. That much, one suspects, Reverend Wright would have applauded.

But Obama was not finished: "Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black." There, in a single sentence, is the essence of Obama's insight. Our identity as Americans neither elides nor erases our other affiliations. Quite the contrary. It is our strong grounding in our own particular communities and traditions that allows us to unite around our shared American values. That's why the young community organizer on Chicago's South Side struggled to connect with his audience until he found a church of his own - a particular community to ground him, and to allow him to reach for the universal. It's why communities of faith and of ethnicity, of shared values and activities, have always formed the basis of our vibrant civic life. When Obama speaks of "binding our particular the larger aspirations of all Americans," he's simultaneously arguing for the importance of particular identities, which provide the basis for mobilization, and for the primacy of shared national goals. We are a United States of America because, instead of simply denying or suppressing our differences, we choose to build upon our unique identities in the pursuit of a more perfect union. E pluribus - out of the particular - Unum - we construct the singular.

And that's the second key insight that Obama offers. Differences need not be divisive. They can provide the basis for cooperation as readily as the grounds for animosity. In fact, Obama may be uniquely positioned to make this argument, born into a family "of every race and every hue." He reminds us that our separate communities blur at the edges, that they are fluid things, that they overlap and intermingle. That if we choose, our tragic racial history can at last be consigned to the past. That America is not static. That "our America can change. That is true genius of this nation."

It is, in the end, a subtle shift - but no less profound for that. If four years ago, Obama asked us to subsume our particular identities in the furtherance of collective goals, yesterday, he called upon us to harness our particular needs in the service of national aims. A call to unity that asks us to draw upon our separate identities is far more likely to provide a lasting basis for cooperation than one which relies upon our forgetting our differences. With his speech in Philadelphia, Obama finally offered a vision of unity that was sufficiently mature and sophisticated to be more than inspirational - it was convincing.

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