April 2, 2008

Sen. Obama's Speech on Race Triggers Debate on Campus

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On March 18, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) gave the American people a tour of their country. It was a tour that began with the signing of the Constitution in 1787, and ended with a vision for the future of a nation — a nation that is ever-changing but ever-present, a home to over 300 million men, women and children from eclectic national, cultural and religious backgrounds.
In a brief 37 minutes, Obama outlined a number of challenging yet interrelated topics that have become defining aspects of American history since the country’s founding: equality, race and religion.
Broadcast after controversial sermons given by his spiritual advisor Rev. Jeremiah Wright were disseminated widely through YouTube, Obama’s address challenged and invited constituents across the nation to engage in a discourse over “the challenges of our time,” which have been a part of America’s past and will fill its future.[img_assist|nid=29406|title=America’s original sin|desc=Members of a panel discuss Obama, race, religion and politics last Thursday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
After much rehashing by the American people, Obama’s words were the center of attention amongst Cornell students, faculty, administrators and members of the Ithaca community who attended a formal talk last Thursday in Sage Chapel. The event was packed with those prepared to partake in a heated discussion on “America’s Original Sin: Obama, Race, Religion and Politics.”
Vice Provost Michele Moody-Adams, professor of ethics and public life, moderated the discussion that featured five panelists: Rev. Kenneth I. Clarke, Sr., director of Cornell University Religious Work, Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, Prof. Nick Salvatore, industrial and labor relations, Muslim Chaplain Omer Bajwa and Prof. Margaret Washington, history.
As each panelist addressed Obama’s discussion of race, religion and national politics through a distinct perspective, he or she offered personal insight into his speech — highlighting his words and goals while introducing an array related sentiments, many of which are echoed amongst members of Cornell’s student population.
Turner praised Obama for his “personal courage and character” that he felt the speech revealed, and for “exciting the imagination of the electorate,” which he claimed is evident from the surge in grass roots activism in the 2008 election season. In addressing race, specifically the “racial divide” and the “legalized discrimination” that Obama claimed has exacerbated the gap between black and white income and education levels, Obama, according to Turner, has commendably “moved his campaign into unchartered water.”
Helen Baek law, president of the Christian Legal Society, expressed similar positive sentiments regarding Obama’s speech.
“The issues [Obama addressed] are uncomfortable to talk about, but they cannot be ignored just because they might be divisive. America is supposed to be a democracy where these racial or religious tensions are not ignored because the issues divide us, but are discussed in a fair forum so that we can understand others more,” she stated in an email.
However, not all of the panelists were as taken aback with Obama’s choice of subject matter. In addressing the Middle Eastern conflict by attributing its origins to “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam,” many considered his explanation rash and incomplete. Chaplain Bawja, as well as other members of Cornell’s Muslim community, felt that Obama unfairly portrayed the Muslim population, and accused him of committing the same errors as his pastor who, as Obama described himself, simplified, stereotyped and amplified “the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”
After identifying Obama’s neglect to mention Muslim imams in the midst of referencing other religious leaders like pastors, priests and rabbis, Aniq Rahman ’09, vice president of Islamic Alliance for Justice, stated, “Obama’s speech with regards to the Muslim population in this community was to strategically divorce himself from it. There are many Muslims who are seeking to embrace the message of change that the Obama campaign promises and seeks to promote, however, it seems like there is a good amount of love lost.”
As Obama described his experiences attending services at Trinity Church, religion remained topic central to the analysis of his speech. As Rev. Clarke said, “Racism is a moral issue, a cancer of the spirit, a social disease,” he related religious ideology to widespread societal issues.
To Amy Pearlman ’09, president of Hillel, Obama’s references to religion are indicative of “a growing trend in the world bringing religion into politics,” which she said is rooted in the ’60s and ’70s as an exertion of conservative Christian values emerged in the midst of a cultural revolution. Ultimately, “separation of church and state doesn’t really happen when individuals have free will and can construct their own views,” she said.
Obama’s speech, which largely focused on the racial dynamic of America throughout history and its future capacity for change, left many viewers feeling optimistic about the governance of the United States in years to come. It highlighted the willingness of a new generation to confront the challenges at hand. “He provided his audience and all of us with his vision of a common good that would span racial divides,” Salvatore said. “[Obama] said, ‘this is the time, we’re going to do something different.’”