Why America Can't Get Beyond Race

Obama's speech on race made me think back to what I was doing five years ago. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a visiting professor at the University of North Florida, and offered a class to non-students which I was lucky enough to attend.

It was the eve of war, and all his comments were filtered through that certainty. We had some slight hope that Bush would back down, that the U.N. might somehow stop him, but we knew what was most likely coming.

But that's another subject. The class was on Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped South Africa end apartheid without massive spilling of white blood, an alternative most South African whites never thought possible. The Truth and Reconciliation process involved first confronting what took place, allowing victims to speak their truth and requiring oppressors to hear it, arriving at punishments that acknowledge no one is beyond God's ability to redeem, and reparations that restore dignity and compensate for loss on the part of those who were mistreated.

American blacks and whites, who filled the room, listened to this description and avoided eye contact with people in the next seat. They wondered why race is just under the surface of everything in this country, and how this continues to be the case when slavery and reconstruction are so long past.

Someone finally found the nerve to ask Tutu why things are different here.


"In South Africa, we knew they intended to clobber us, and you had to deal with that and find ways to defend yourself and to survive. Here, there seemed to be a kind of conspiracy. And I have come to the conclusion that it seems to me that you are not going to be able to have normal relationships until you come to terms with the legacy of slavery and what happened to Native Americans. There seems to be a pain that is sitting in the pit of the tummy of almost all African Americans and Native Americans," Tutu said.
No, we haven't come to terms with it. Like Obama said in his speech, white people today, who never personally owned another person, can't understand why they should be held responsible for what was done in the past. And black people can't understand why we don't get their anger.

Obama's speech, even with all the attention it got, is underestimated because what people really wanted to hear was whether he denounced his pastor enough. They regarded everything else as just a backdrop for his anticipated but not delivered "apology." Instead, he gave us nothing less than the whole shooting match, folks.

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