The high point of Barack Obama's quest to win the presidency and unify the nation came on February 19th. That's when he won, not just the Wisconsin Democratic primary but also, for the first time, a majority of white blue collar votes.
Then, on March 13th, ABC News aired excerpts of sermons delivered by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. His Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's south side sold the videos, and ABC says that having reviewed dozens of them it found, "repeated denunciations of the U.S. based on what (Wright) described as his reading of the Gospels and the treatment of black Americans." Wright claims that misleading "snippets" have been "looped" by the media, but entire sermons, as well as Wright's more recent comments, are readily available on the Internet.
Race had long before become an issue in this campaign. As I have noted in previous columns, Hillary Clinton supporters like Bob Kerrey, Andrew Cuomo, Andrew Young, Robert Johnson, Geraldine Ferraro and Bill Clinton all alluded to Obama in racial terms. The candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, frequently mentions the hope of racial reconciliation offered by her husband, but she also offended many people by saying, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."
All this raises a larger question. What does racial reconciliation mean, and what does it require from government?
Most conservatives and libertarians believe that reconciliation will come when Americans are allowed to follow the call of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. They say the most pervasive racism in America now stems from those who, like Reverend Wright, continue to foster a sense of black separateness, which even extends to Wright's belief in racially based right brain left brain differences in learning styles.
Barack Obama traces Rev. Wright's anger to the '60s civil rights struggle. Wright insists that struggle continues. He may even resent Obama for presenting himself as a leader who transcends racial tensions. But has Obama really done that?
Liberals believe we have not yet reached the point where government can be color blind. Take affirmative action. In the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court, split 5-4, upheld the University of Michigan law school's admission policy that included race based affirmative action. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote: "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." The court had written more or less the same thing in the Bakke case, 25 years before.
Liberals say raced based government policies are justified by glaring inequality throughout our society. Conservatives argue that civil rights laws have leveled the playing field, at least regarding legal rights, and that inequality is now primarily the result of irresponsible individual behavior, incentivized by government programs that make people more dependent on government. President Bill Clinton seemed to agree when he signed onto Republican-led welfare reform in 1996. That landmark law is rarely mentioned by Democratic candidates, including Senator Clinton, when they extol the Clinton years.
Justice may lie somewhere in between. In Ohio, relying on property taxes to support public schools led to unequal funding in many predominantly black neighborhoods. Even conservatives on the state's high court agreed that had to be redressed. But conservatives note that higher spending does not automatically spell better results. Decisions by parents count for more than any government program.
Debate about the proper role of government extends well beyond racial issues. How far should government go in providing health care? Bailing out borrowers and banks? Conserving energy and creating new fuel sources? Defending against uncertain foreign threats? Come November, voters will be presented with starkly different answers to all these questions and more. But the race may well turn upon matters of race.