Like him or not, what Barack Obama did yesterday, in my opinion at least, epitomizes what we need our next president to be, namely a teacher. Agree with him or not, can there be any doubt that anyone listening to that speech yesterday is not thinking harder and more expansively about race in this country and in our lives today? Trust him or not, is there any question that he articulated a real truth about the state of race relations from both a black and a white perspective?
Right now, we are having a “teachable moment” about race in America. If you listen to conservative talk radio as I have been for the past few weeks, the issue is, no pun intended, black or white. If the candidate does not distance himself from his pastor and his church, then he is guilty by association of believing the invective that’s being dragged in front of us by the media or which we are choosing to consume on YouTube. If he does distance himself, then it’s simply politics as usual. It’s a simple equation.
But the reality is that this conversation, like most, is more nuanced. And it’s our collective lack of understanding of that nuance which bogs us down. We have little empathy for the experiences of those unlike us, and too many of us are afraid to ask. We need an education in this country about race. We need a starting point for the conversation, and we need someone to take on a teacherly role to guide it.
Seventy-five years ago, FDR gave the first of his “Fireside Chats” intended to educate (as well as sway) the American public about the issues of the day. By every measure, they were hugely successful in moving people to act in informed and collective ways. And the feedback that Roosevelt received in the form of millions of letters allowed him to tap into the pulse of the people and the nation in ways that few other presidents before or since have been able to. He guided, he taught my father’s generation about the realities of the world, enabling them to have more informed conversations about the state of their lives. Yes, I know, these were not balanced presentations, but at minimum they made the country think about the proposed solutions to the complexities of the time.
And while the world by its very nature is complex, this moment seems decidedly so. Not just because of race, but because of the litany of problems that Obama articulated and the fact that no one no matter what color or heritage is immune from them. (I don’t think climate change cares much about the color of your skin or your family heritage.) We need someone who will encourage and facilitate a broad ranging conversation about these issues. We need someone who can create some lesson plans for the millions of us who want to engage, want to contribute, want to work to solve the problems together. We need someone who I can hold up as a role model for my own children as a steward for the environment, as a peace maker, as a listener, as a deep thinker.
We need a teacher.
This is just one of many teachable moments that this world and this society will continue to throw at us. Rare has been the occasion when we as a country have been led to a deeper understanding of events. In what was without question the most teachable moment of my life six-and-a-half years ago, I was told to go to the mall and keep spending my money. That’s not what a teacher would have done.
To steal from the inimitable Chris Lehmann, yesterday, I saw a teacher.