Barack Obama: Bridging the Racial Divide

In his column for the Washington Post published on Sunday, November 2, 2008, David Broder stated the following in the article he entitled, An Admirable Campaign Journey: “In what history may record as his singular achievement—dealing with the classic American dilemma of race—[Obama] had the largely unappreciated help of his opponent, John McCain, who simply ruled out covert racial appeals used by politicians of both parties in the past. But Obama himself demonstrated repeatedly how to bridge the racial divides that still remain, by emphasizing his calm good judgment and respect for others. As a symbol of that national maturity, he carries a powerful, positive message to the world.”

I concur broadly with Broder’s assessment, however Barack Obama’s success in largely transcending old racial divides was a product of more than just exhibiting “calm good judgement and respect for others.” As I have demonstrated in my recently published book, Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com), Senator Barack Obama has used many key communication techniques to tear down barriers and build up bridges. For instance, Obama would often draw explicit attention to his “non-traditional” background—his “exotic” name, the fact that his father was raised in a mud hut in Kenya, the fact that he is a child of a mixed-race couple, etc. By drawing explicit attention to the “elephants in the room” early on, he helped people become comfortable and made those sources of his “difference” non-issues. Equally importantly, Obama demonstrated great skill consistently in steering attention to the many areas of common ground he shares with his listeners. Whether referring to shared history, shared experiences or shared values, he created a sense of “we”-ness. He also helped build bridges by speaking to listeners in words with which they were familiar, with words that resonated with them, or by referring to the words of famous American icons.  Obama’s ability to use communication so skillfully to unite people offers lessons for us all. The model he has provided in this regard will no doubt serve as one of the lasting influences of his extraordinary political journey.
 

Dr. Shel Leanne is author of Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com) and President of Regent Crest, a leadership development firm whose clients come from Fortune 500 companies.

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