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Race & Politics Since RFK

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/obrfk.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Robert F. Kennedy (Flickr, Library of Congress)

Today, Thursday, June 5, marks the 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. So when Sen. Barack Obama declared in Minnesota Tuesday: “Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another — a journey that will bring a new and better day to America,” I found myself thinking about the remarkable distance the United States has come these four decades.

My first job out of law school was special counsel and speech writer for Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. My wife and I were moving down to Washington.

I had met Jean, my late wife, when we were students at Swarthmore College. We both went on to Yale Law School. She was one of a handful of African-American women graduates there. I am white and Jewish. Mixed-race marriage was still illegal in both Maryland and Virginia then. During our courtship, we had been arrested for walking down the street together in Baltimore. When we looked for a house in Washington in 1963, there were still places we could not go for a cup of coffee.

The 1960s signaled change, the nation seemed to be waiting for it — much like now. My first assignments at the Justice Dept. involved monitoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, working on civil-rights legislation involving public accommodations and the lunch counter sit-in cases headed for the Supreme Court. Great talent and energy flooded into public-interest work. The War on Poverty covered the Appalachian poor, all disenfranchised minority groups, migrant laborers and Native Americans. We talked about race being transcended by our efforts to expand opportunity for all.

Image has not been found. URL: http://photos.state.gov/libraries/photofile/3234/Week_2_09_07/091107-robertkennedy-200.jpg The Vietnam War, among other issues, ultimately divided the nation and that moment passed. Instead of race being transcended, it became a political weapon to prop up and sustain the politics of inequality. Over the years, I began to wonder whether America would ever address our embedded racial tensions in an honest dialogue, and clear the way to tackle the disparities that exist in America.

Now, astonishingly, the opportunity returns. Obama’s candidacy has served notice that race can no longer define American politics as it has in recent years. We are in a different place — if only because the Illinois senator has succeeded in insisting that he is part black, part white, in a nation that, until now, has recognized only black or only white.

In ways that recall Kennedy’s ability to reframe issues, Obama has consistently appealed to our better selves as citizens. RFK did not hesitate to remind us that poverty and race are intertwined, characterizing indifference and apathy to racism as “violence that afflicts the poor.” Similarly, Obama keeps reminding us that race in the United States has the potential to draw forth our best impulses — if the issue is framed in terms of ending violence against our own values as a nation.

The challenges the nation faces are many and distressingly familiar. Many of our schools are not doing a good job of educating our kids. Our health care system is not working for vast numbers. Time and again, race has been used to compartmentalize problems that are ours — all of ours — as a nation, as one nation. We let race divert us from problems that diminish our nation’s greatness.

An undercurrent of racial divisiveness has long permeated U.S. politics. Obama’s candidacy brings race into the open. He has exhorted Americans to confront the nation’s racial and racist past. He has done so with a largeness of spirit, so that we might address our current problems, and, as he has said, give new meaning to the words, a more perfect union.

Last night I remembered an incident involving race that Robert Kennedy resolved by appealing to the best in others. My wife and I had chosen a house in one of Washington’s leafy neighborhoods, but quickly discovered we were not welcome. Pulling up with the moving van, we found the quiet street blockaded by parked cars. Then, to our surprise, before a confrontation could even begin, the cars started to clear.

Later, we learned that Kennedy had secured all our neighbors’ phone numbers. That morning, on the pretext that I didn’t yet have a phone, he called our prospective neighbors with urgent messages to be passed on to me about the Cuban missile crisis. His actions averted what could have been a racially explosive confrontation. But he had appealed to our new neighbors’ higher impulses as citizens, as Americans.

All of this came back to me Tuesday night, as pundits analyzed Obama’s historic announcement that he had clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination. I wondered if race and gender had finally begun to lose the power to divide, to disenfranchise and divert Americans from addressing otherwise intolerable inequities.

I thought about those phone calls Kennedy made to my neighbors. I found myself asking: Are we wise enough, this time, to seize the moment?


Edgar Cahn is the founder of TimeBanks USA, a nonprofit that promotes Time Dollars, local currency for community building and a Distinguished Professor at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law. He is the author of “No More Throw-Away People” and “Priceless Money.”

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