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On my iPod on the way to work this morning, I read an article in the New York Times entitled, As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of It. The article was provided enough fodder to keep my mind busy the rest of the train ride.

Before I begin a discussion about race, I want to first acknowledge my worldview and biases. First: I am white. Historically and today, whites have special privileges in our society. I benefit from these privileges. I adamantly oppose such inequalities, but benefit from them nonetheless. Second: my neighborhood is 92% black. Therefore, race issues permeate my daily life. I cannot escape confronting them, as my life up until recently has allowed me to do so. Also, I live about ten blocks south of Obama’s house. Third: I’ve struggled to find my role in the conversation. I’ve resolved that the most important thing I can do is listen, listen to my black sisters and brothers. In this post, I will dare to speak. Please understand that I do so with utmost humility. If my words conflict with your experience, I am eager to learn. I offer willing ears to resume listening once I am done speaking. Ok, so on to the article and my thoughts…

Even before that, several conservatives had accused their liberal counterparts of unfairly tainting them as racists for engaging in legitimate criticism of the White House.

Mr. Obama’s response to all this, aides say, has been to tell his staff not to be distracted by the charges and to focus on health care and the rest of his policy agenda.

“He could probably give a very powerful speech on race, just as he did in the course of the campaign,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But right now his top domestic priority is health care reform. It’s difficult, challenging and complicated. And if he leads by example, our country will be far better off.”

First of all, I have been extremely disappointed by recent attempts by both the right and the left to smear the other side. Whether it be ACORN or racism, I am disgusted by actions by both parties to dig up dirt and parade around. Instead of engaging in constructive debate and conversation, everyone seems more interested in sucker-punching each other. It makes me angry. I admire and respect Obama’s willingness to focus on the issue, rather than be caught up in poo-flinging.

But a number of prominent conservatives say critics have been smeared by many of the president’s supporters.

On his radio program this week, Rush Limbaugh said, “Today, it’s all based in racism — the criticism of Obama’s health care plan or whatever.” On Fox News, former Speaker Newt Gingrich added, “I think it’s very destructive for America to suggest that we can’t criticize a president without it being a racial act.”

It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the vitriol that has come Mr. Obama’s way is racially motivated and the extent to which it is simply akin to that directed at his white predecessors.

Former officials who served under President George W. Bush have been quick to recall this week that protesters frequently compared him to Hitler and that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, called him a “loser” and a “liar.”

I have to admit, I think I agree with Limbaugh and Gingrich. I don’t know which would be worse: Conservatives actually being racist, or Liberals using race as a tool to accomplish an agenda. Race is quality which creates valuable diversity. Race is not and should not be a tool. Above all, it should not be a tool used to polarize, divide and discredit another for one’s personal gain. I’ll be honest, I’m outraged at the liberals right now.

Like the author said, previous presidents were attacked with (at least) equal disdain and vehemence. Being compared to Hitler is a step up from being called a liar in my book. That doesn’t excuse the inappropriate actions of Conservatives like Joe Wilson, either. As Colin Powell says later in the article, the issue is civility. It was uncivil to compare Bush to Hitler. It’s uncivil to call Obama a liar.

Other supporters of Mr. Obama, however, say they cannot help seeing overt racism in some of the conservative attacks.

“You cannot act like you don’t have several hundred years of racial context here, where a painted face has a racial context to it in this country,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who helped on Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and has studied race extensively.

Our nation has a history of racial inequality that persists today and cannot be ignored. I believe that our collusion and participation in a racist system must be acknowledged. We are all racist. The conservatives accused of racism are racist. These supporters of Obama are racist. I’m racist. However, I would hope that by such an admission is a step towards reconciliation.

His goal, Mr. Obama has told both camps, is to be seen as a president who happens to be black rather than the nation’s first black president.

This statement causes the most controversy in my mind. I haven’t heard Obama speak on his motivation and rationalization for such a statement. I imagine that he doesn’t want his legacy to be reduced to the color of his skin. At the same time, I derive a sense of pride from the idea of “the first black president.” I think it is indicative of the progress our nation has made on issues of race. Perhaps the idea of “the first black president” should be dissociated from the person of Obama. Either way, I marked the inauguration as a historic day in the life of our country.