Can Obama’s speech change the national dialogue on race?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The Los Angeles Times has a story today on whether Obama’s speech will be able to change the way this country talks about race.

I spent some time on the phone with the reporter as well, giving my views. Here are a few excerpts:

In his recent address on race relations in America — prompted by his minister’s explosive sermons on that topic — Sen. Barack Obama declared that whites must understand the black experience in America and blacks must appreciate the white perspective. Otherwise, he said, we face a grinding “racial stalemate.”

His remarks struck a nerve: More than 4 million people watched the Democratic presidential candidate on live TV, and the speech is now a top video on YouTube, viewed nearly 3 million times.

Preachers and teachers across the country have been trying to figure out how to leverage that interest to launch deep, authentic discussions about race. In some quarters, there’s strong interest…

Carmen Van Kerckhove, co-founder of a diversity consulting firm in New York, described the dynamic this way: “Human beings tend to be really focused on their own oppression, and tend to be less interested in hearing about the oppression of others.”…

In her small beauty salon in Franktown, Charlotte Britton, 65, serves white and black customers. But Britton, who is white, wouldn’t dream of talking with them about race. Part of that is business: She likes to keep chatter in the salon light — no politics, no religion.

But the deeper truth is this: She never dreamed that anyone would want to talk about race. Until she saw video clips of Obama’s pastor sermonizing about black oppression, Britton said she had no clue that anyone other than a few hard-core white supremacists thought much about skin color.

“I thought we were past that,” she said. “I didn’t realize this was going on in the United States. In this day and age? I was shocked.”