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Barack Obama, Race, and Game Theory

Philadephia speech is rhetorical high water mark of presidential primary season.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President, was in Philadelphia today for a major speech on race.

Here's a link to the original speech transcript as given to the news media prior to the speech. Be sure to read (or better yet listen to) this speech. I think it's a rhetorical high water mark for the Democratic primary season that I am convinced will resolve itself well before the Democratic National Convention this summer.

Why a speech on race now?

Less than a week ago, video clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery sermons (including lines such as, "G-Damn America") began to show up on You Tube and other places on the net. Wright, the recently retired pastor of Chicago's Trinity UCC, a megachurch, Afrocentric congregation, has been a spiritual father to Obama in more ways than one. (Here's one link to one of the many You Tube video clips.)

After the clips surfaced, conservative media, such as Fox News, pushed this story into the national conversation, creating a domino effect of media attention. In recent days, Obama has given major interviews to Chicago news media, explaining why he rejects Wright's comments, but stops short of condemning Wright himself.

This is a tricky line to draw. In Philadelphia, Obama commented about Rev. Wright, saying:

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America, to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

A high-five to Sen. Obama for addressing the racial divisions in America at a time when politicians use slippery language to get off the hook on race. The part of the Obama speech that is less likely to gain careful examination comes in this phrase:

....opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

So, take a short detour with me into Game Theory, in particular zero-sum and non-zero-sum situations. That's what Obama is getting at. When winners and losers in any society are determined by the color of their skin or ethnicity, then a fundamentally unjust, zero-sum situation results.

Defining this problem is just one element of game theory here. The other, harder thing to understand is the non-zero-sum situation, otherwise known as a "win-win" outcome. (In competitive sports, we are looking for one winner and one loser at the end of the game. Chess is the classic, zero-sum game.)

But in America, we believe everyone should have "a piece of the American dream"– a good job, owning a home, public safety, good education, and a secure retirement. So the vision that Obama is casting here is really not about "pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye," but "pie now," a bigger pie, and fair play in which each person gets a fair shot at achieving the American dream.

And, when politicians emotively talk about non-zero-sum, win-win situations, they deliver lines that invariably draw on biblical themes.

In Obama's speech, he does this by saying:

"In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand–that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

Isn't the non-zero-sum culture (as addressed in the Psalm 133, Amos 5:24, or Acts 2:42+) one of the most persistent ideas in the entire narrative of Scripture?

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