Engaging with “A More Perfect Union”

Like many (I hope most) people, I was deeply moved and impressed by Senator Obama’s speech on race. Almost as interesting as the speech itself have been the responses to it, which usually come in the form of opinions: the speech was good or bad or didn’t go far enough or went too far, and so on.
Opinions often don’t tell us much about the content of the speech – it’s truth, beauty, or goodness; they tell us more about the perspective, bias, fears, hopes, and interests of the commentator. I hope we can go beyond talking about the speech to talking about America, and the state of race relations in America. I hope we can go beyond offering old and often utterly predictable opinions and instead, through honest engagement and dialogue about the speech, seek to have our opinions modified and improved and deepened and perhaps even challenged and changed.
We have many places for people to react and practice opinion-giving and other forms of punditry, but what we seem to lack is space for people to have a more generous and generative kind of intelligent shared reflection and consideration. So, I decided it might be worthwhile to offer some commentary on the content of the speech along with questions for conversation, so that people could download the text, make copies of it, and read it through together, stimulating potentially constructive dialogue about a truly important subject.
The best case scenario would be for mixed groups to read and discuss the speech together – gathering a group of friends from work or a sports team or a neighborhood or church. Three questions would guide this kind of dialogue:
What can we learn about America?
What can we learn about people of other races?
What can we learn about ourselves?
The goal here is not agreement, but understanding. Each participant has to desire more to understand than to be understood, and more to learn than to teach.

“A More Perfect Union”
Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the
street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched
America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars;
statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny
and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a
Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.
It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that
divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the
founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more
years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Were you aware of this original policy on slavery? What advantages did the colonies gain by not making a decision on slavery from the beginning? What were the consequences of this decision? Might there be parallel issues in our day – issues we avoid addressing? What will the consequences be of leaving them to future generations to resolve?

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within
our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of
equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people
liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over

Have you ever read the Constitution? Perhaps it would be wise to download a copy and discuss it after discussing this speech.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from
bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights
and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were
Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part –
through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a
civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that
gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign –
to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more
just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I
chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them
together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have
different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same
and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the
same direction – towards a better future for of children and our

How do you see yourself and your life in the context of “the long march” toward “a more perfect union?” Have you ever actively worked for positive change in America? Who are your heroes in this “long march,” and why?

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of
the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was
raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to
serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who
worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas.
I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the
world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within
her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our
two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles
and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents,
and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on
Earth is my story even possible.

How do you think your perspectives would be different if you shared these characteristics in your story: a) your parents came from two different countries and two different races, b) you had lived as a child in a third-world country, c) you attended the best schools in the nation, and d) you had relatives of many races on three continents?

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is
a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is
more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.
Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the
contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of
unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial
lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest
populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag
still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white

What does it say about America that this “unconventional candidate” has come this far?

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At
various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too
black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface
during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured
every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in
terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.
And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of
race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is
somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the
desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.
On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright,
use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to
widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the
goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

Have you listened to Rev. Wright’s statements? Did you find any truth in them? What offended you or struck you as false or wrong? Why do you think he made these statements? Why would some people say “Amen” to these statements?

Can you think of opposite statements that might be made (or have been made) by a white American that could be equally appalling to African Americans or other people of color? How would people react to these statements?

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend
Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions
remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American
domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks
that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I
strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m
sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis
with which you strongly disagreed.

Have you had this kind of experience of disagreement? Share your experience.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply
controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out
against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted
view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that
elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with
America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted
primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of
emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

Do you believe white racism is endemic in America? How serious a problem do you think it is? If you were racially different from your actual identity, would you feel the same way? What do you know about the Middle East controversy? Do you believe Israel has any culpability for the tensions there, or do you believe all the fault lies with radical Muslims?

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive,
divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we
need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a
terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and
potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or
white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

What are the most “monumental problems” you believe we face? Who would need to come together to solve your list of problems? What will the consequences be if we don’t come together and don’t solve them?

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there
will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not
enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they
may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew
of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an
endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of
Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators,
there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more
than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian
faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to
care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country
as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest
universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years
led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth –
by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care
services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those
suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Have you ever had a friend or relative who was vilified, and you had to choose whether or not to remain loyal? How did you respond? Have you ever been vilified by people who didn’t know the whole story about you? How did that feel?

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my
first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a
forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that
single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross,
inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of
ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses
and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones.
Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my
story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until
this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying
the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our
trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than
black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to
reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all
people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”

Think about your own religious community. What effect has it had on you? If you have no religious community, share how your lack of religious involvement might affect you. How might the stories of the Bible (or other sacred texts) help people see their own stories in a new light?

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black
churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its
entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former
gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of
raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing,
clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.
The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce
intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the
love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As
imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my
faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my
conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in
derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but
courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good
and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many

Think of your own faith community, or your family, or other groups to which you belong. How do they contain “the contradictions – the good and the bad” of America – or the human race – in general?

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no
more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise
me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as
much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her
fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one
occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

Do you have someone in your life like this grandmother – someone who loves you and whom you love, who makes you cringe by racial comments? How do you feel about this person, and his or her statements?

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country
that I love.
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are
simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically
safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades
into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue,
just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her
recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

How do you feel about our political climate – that seeks out this sort of episode and focuses on it? What’s good about this pattern, and what’s unhelpful?

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore
right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in
his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify
the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

Have you heard examples of people responding to the speech in this way – simplifying, stereotyping, and amplifying the negative?

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have
surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this
country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we
have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our
respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve
challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for
every American.

Why is it tempting to “walk away” and “retreat into our respective corners?”
What follows next is a brief summary of the ways in which America’s racial past affects America’s racial present. I have numbered the examples in the text so they can be discussed one by one.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this
point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In
fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of
racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so
many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today
can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation
that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

“Jim Crow” refers to the “separate but equal” laws of segregation.

1) Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed
them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior
education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive
achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
2) Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through
violence, from owning property, or 3) loans were not granted to
African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA
mortgages, or 4) blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire
departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful
wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the
wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets
of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
5) A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and
frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family,
contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that 6) welfare
policies for many years may have worsened. And 7) the lack of basic services in
so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police
walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement –
all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to
haunt us.

Which of the preceding seven (or so) problems have you seen or experienced the most? Which do you understand the least? What questions do you have about these problems?

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of
his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early
sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and
opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how
many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women
overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those
like me who would come after them.

Have you ever been called a racial slur? Were you called a name as a child? What effect did that have on you? Do you agree – that what is surprising about African Americans who came of age in the fifties and early sixties is not that some are angry or damaged by the experience, but that so many have done so well?

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the
American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were
ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy
of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and
increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or
languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even
for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to
define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of
Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear
have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.
That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or
white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the
kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up
votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

If you have never experienced this kind of anger and bitterness, try to empathize and describe what it would feel like to be in a “safe place” to let out your pain. Then discuss how you would feel if, having let out your pain in a supposedly safe place, your words were broadcast around the world on Youtube.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the
pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear
that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old
truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday
morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it
distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely
facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the
African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring
about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish
it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen
the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

Why do you think Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week? Why haven’t our churches done more to bring racial reconciliation and deal with deep-seated anger about race? The speech asks us to do two things: to acknowledge that the anger isn’t always productive, and to acknowledge that it is real and powerful. Why is that difficult? Why is it easier to “condemn it without understanding its roots?”
Next, Senator Obama tries to detail white anger:

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. 1) Most
working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been
particularly privileged by their race. 2) Their experience is the immigrant
experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything,
they’ve built it from scratch. 3) They’ve worked hard all their lives, many
times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after
a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their
dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition,
4) opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come
at my expense. 5) So when they are told to bus their children to a school
across town; 6) when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage
in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice
that they themselves never committed; 7) when they’re told that their fears
about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds
over time.

Review these seven sources of white anger. Which of the preceding seven (or so) problems have you seen or experienced the most? Which do you understand the least? What questions do you have about these problems?

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always
expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political
landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative
action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited
fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and
conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of
racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and
inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white
resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class
squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable
accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by
lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over
the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label
them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in
legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path
to understanding.

If you are white, do you feel Senator Obama has correctly articulated white frustrations? As he did with black anger, he asks us to do something difficult: to see white anger as both counterproductive and distracting at times and as legitimate. Why is that hard to do?

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in
for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I
have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial
divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy –
particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in
God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move
beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is
we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

Do you think “racial stalemate” describes our current situation well? How would you add to or modify that description?

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of
our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist
on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also
means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better
schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans – the
white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been
laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full
responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and
spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them
that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives,
they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe
that they can write their own destiny.

How do you respond to these recommendations for the African American community? What would you add to this list? How does this list transcend and include liberal and conservative concerns?

Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion
of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But
what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a
program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about
racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as
if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made
it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the
land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and
poor, young and old – is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what
we know – what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true
genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the
audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Do you share the optimism and hope here? Why or why not? Where do you see examples of America changing for the better? If you could see America succeed in changing three things in the next ten years, what would they be?

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging
that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the
minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current
incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real
and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in
our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and
ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this
generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous
generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not
have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health,
welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately
help all of America prosper.

How do you respond to these recommendations for the white American community? What would you add to this list? How does this list transcend and include liberal and conservative concerns?
Compare the prescriptions for African Americans with the prescriptions for the white community? What do you observe about the similarities and differences between to the two lists?

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than
what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we
would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells
us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have
in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

Reflect on this reference to religion. What are the effects of bringing in religion at this juncture in the speech? How do you respond?

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds
division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle –
as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the
aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play
Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them
from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign
whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or
sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a
Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can
speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general
election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.

Have you see people acting in these ways since the speech was given? How do you feel about these reactions?

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking
about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one.
And nothing will change.

How do the previous reactions keep things from changing?
Now the speech turns to the future, using the phrase “not this time.” I’ve numbered the items to aid in discussion:

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come
together and say, “Not this time.” 1) This time we want to talk about the
crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white
children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American
children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these
kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s
problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and
we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
2) This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are
filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who
don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in
Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
3) This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a
decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that
once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of
life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not
that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the
corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a
4) This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed
who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same
proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that
never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want
to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their
families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

Respond to these four examples of what could be different if we came together in a new way “this time.” Imagine what it would take – in terms of political leadership and public sentiment – to make progress in these four areas. What would the obstacles be? Do you think change is possible in these four areas? What could derail the needed change?

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart
that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This
union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that
it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling
doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is
the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and
openness to change have already made history in this election.

What do you do when you feel doubtful or cynical about America’s future? Do you see reasons for hope in the next generation?

There is one story in particular that I’d like to leave you with today – a
story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday
at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who
organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working
to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this
campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went
around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And
because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health
care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that
she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley
convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat
more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was
the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at
the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could
help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help
their parents too.
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her
along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were
on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the
country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight
against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks
everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different
stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come
to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time.
And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific
issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education
or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He
simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

Describe your response to this story. Try to put in words what is going on in this story. What does this story add to the speech?

“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition
between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is
not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or
education to our children.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so
many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and
twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in
Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.
What was the moment of recognition?

Offer your reactions to the speech – not simply in terms of what you liked or didn’t like, but in terms of what you learned or gained from it and still need to think more about.
[If someone would like to start a website to share their experiences from using these discussion questions, send the link and I’ll post it at www.brianmclaren.net and www.deepshift.org. Thanks for your interest – Brian McLaren]

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