For 37 minutes and 37 seconds yesterday, Barack Obama wasn’t a politician vying for a shot at the White House. He wasn’t rehashing a tired stump speech. He wasn’t urging voters to turn out for the big Pennsylvania primary next month. He wasn’t even cleaning up the mess surrounding the recent release of videos of sermons by his friend and pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. in which Wright condemned the government as racist and corrupt.

Despite all that, it would be unfair for me to deny that Obama’s speech will be politically beneficial. It was a good speech. It was also na’ve of the Clinton campaign to think that it could use Obama’s race as a weapon in the first place. He’s the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother – how many times does he have to say that before we understand that he knows a thing or two about the complexity of racial issues?

What Obama did yesterday was difficult, and there were hundreds of ways that he could have disassociated himself from Wright without making this gamble. He could have disowned his pastor, claimed he didn’t know about these fiery homilies and let the whole thing blow over. He could have called out the Hillary Clinton for making race an issue in the campaign when he never wanted it to be. He probably could have just avoided the whole thing altogether. That probably would have been the prudent thing to do, especially while trying to win a state once described as Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east and Alabama in the middle.

He didn’t do those things. Yesterday, Obama was lecturing. And his lesson was one that students on this campus – whether they’re Obama supporters or not – should heed.

Like the message in his first book “Dreams From My Father,” Obama’s speech was a nuanced explanation of the complex state of race relations in America. He contends that racial inequality exists. It rears its ugly head in America’s public schools and prisons and has its roots in hundreds of years of oppression that can’t be forgotten overnight. Minority groups have reason to still be angry. But Obama was still quick to indict black people like Wright who narrowly dwell on such anger.

On the other side, Obama said, “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.” This experience breeds resentment, but considering these people “racist” or “misguided” without understanding their concerns, he argued, is inappropriate. By the same token, for white people to deny the inequality in America is equally inappropriate.

“It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years,” Obama said. He might as well have been talking about the University, because the same stalemate exists here.

More than a year after Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment banning race- and gender-based affirmative action at public institutions in the state, racial minorities on campus feel like their communities are threatened. And they’re right. Their communities are threatened. This amendment has the potential to roll back decades of progress ethnic minorities have made in higher education. But what is a more difficult challenge is explaining this sentiment to white people who may not understand that feeling.

On the other side, there are probably many white high school students who feel relieved now that the ballot initiative has passed. There are probably many white parents who have lost their jobs in the automotive industry who no longer worry that a minority student will have an advantage over their student in receiving a coveted scholarship. With dwindling jobs in Michigan, they are understandably concerned. Too often these people use these emotional arguments that hide the collective problem.

Similarly, it’s no secret that students of all races and ethnicities at the University segregate themselves. Different groups of students live in different neighborhoods, attend different parties, go to different bars and join different student organizations.

Instead of a reason to ignore race and pretend that we can live in a colorblind society, these distinctions should be reasons to acknowledge race.

Obama recognizes that racial marginalization and prejudice are very complex realities – not only in our nation’s past, but in our present, too. While groups on all sides of the racial debate will be quick to embrace those of his words that support their situation, we must remember to recognize the other side. When we fail to consider that other side, legitimately listen to those sides and consider them for ourselves, discrimination arises.

On campus we still have a long way to go. When By Any Means Necessary hijacks events like the Ward Connerly speech earlier this month or the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom hold uninformative and callous events like “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” – as it did in 2006 – these groups polarize campus and prevent a necessary exchange.

As Obama said yesterday, these issues “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.”

Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at

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