By Van Jones As Told To Ronda Racha Penrice
Although the story is still unfolding, so far the results of Obama on race are mixed. At times, Obama has been bold in tackling questions of race. Too often he has been timid. I see his short tenure on the world stage as something of a three-act play. • The First Act was his response to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright scandal in 2008. • The Second Act was his decision to hold a “beer summit” in the wake of the unjust arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. in 2009. • And the Third Act is comprised of Obama’s responses to the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the subsequent trial in 2013. Let’s take each “Obama Act” in turn…
Racial Courage: Standing Tall During The Reverend Wright Fiasco
Reverend Wright, the famous pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, was Obama’s personal spiritual counselor. But in the middle of the 2008 election cycle, videos surfaced exposing Wright’s incendiary sermons blasting the United States’ sketchy history and foreign policy. At the time, Obama was still largely an “unknown quantity” to Americans, and therefore highly vulnerable. He was a freshman U.S. senator, running an insurgent presidential campaign against the living legend Hillary Clinton. The nation was just beginning to ask itself if it really could elect a black man as president of the United States. The Clinton campaign was effectively sowing doubts—arguing that he was a bad bet for the Democratic Party and would lose a national election. With the revelation of Rev. Wright’s explosive words, even some African Americans began losing faith in Obama. In this situation, Obama faced a choice. He could have simply and quickly condemned Rev. Wright—and then put maximum distance between himself and a potentially lethal threat to his candidacy. Instead, contrary to almost all expectations, Obama demonstrated enormous courage. He seized the opportunity to offer a thoughtful, serious, candid—and very personal—exposition about race and racism in America. He chose to do so in March 2008 in Philadelphia in the shadow of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written and debated. Obama worked to transform the situation into a chance for greater racial understanding. It remains perhaps his most powerful, meaningful and important speech. And he didn’t just need to deliver it; Americans—of all races—needed to hear it. Obama’s choice at this moment was particularly telling—and encouraging. At a time when he could have ducked and dodged, he took a decidedly higher road. He bet that Americans were ready for a grown-up conversation about our complicated history. He had the wisdom and maturity to deliver his address with humility. He had faith that people would hear what he had to say with that same thoughtfulness. That act of racial courage changed public perception of him in a positive direction and may have won him both the nomination and the presidency.