There is part of me that wants to shrug over Barack Obama's reference to his grandmother as "a typical white person." Obama says he wants to encourage more candor in our conversation about race. My guess is that many blacks and whites hold on to assumptions about the "typical" black and white person and he's just being honest in revealing his own.
But having revealed his own racial presuppositons, what are we supposed to do about them. He's not apologizing so I take it that he believes that it is OK to say that he believes that white people "typically" have what I presume that he believes to be an unreasonable fear of black males. I assume that his defense of that belief would be that it is true. At least if there are not other reassuring social cues provided by things like age, dress and context, it may well be the case that many white people would be nervous about a young black male approaching them on a dark city street. It seems likely to me that the average white person - particularily one who is especially vulnerable in such circumstances like an older woman - would overestimate the danger that young black males pose.
But true candor about such things would probably eschew the promiscuous of the word "racist" in connection with both Obama's observation and the fact that he feels free to attribute it to white people generally. Our typical white person probably thinks she has good reason to be nervous. She may be well aware of the danger in applying racial stereotypes to individuals but that pales when she is listening to footsteps behind her.
On the other hand, if you are, say, a young black law student heading home from the library, it hardly reduces the injury of being presumed dangerous to be told that it's not personal.
And, if you are that young law student, you probably have reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of white people and may have come to overestimate the level of racial hostility you face. Like our white woman on a dark street, you know that it is unfair to presume the worst about others but racial injury stings and you don't want to leave yourself open to it.
Candor would require us to recognize and even, at least to some degree, understand these attitudes. But don't we want to struggle against them? Certainly we don't want others to feed these fears. This is one the reasons that some get upset by "Willie Horton" like political ads. They fear that they encourage racial suspicion.
But that's precisely ZRev. Wright's sin. He doesn't promote racial understanding but division. He isn't simply pointing to unpleasant truths, he's spinning tales that are designed to inflame rather than to heal.
We might be able to understand why he has come to this, but we should not accept it.
And that's what Obama did. He associated himself with the church and the man. He never condemned what it now seems apparent that he must have heard on a fairly regular basis. He never stood up for reason and healing. Until now.
What he needed to do in that pretty speech in Philadelphia is explain why.