Barack Obama's Speech on Race
Bill Long 3/19/08
What Obama Really Was Saying...
Mitt Romney was chagrined when he had to give his "I'm Mormon and I'm OK" speech--and that was just before his campaign for the Republican nomination for President tanked early last month. Like Romney, Barack Obama didn't want to give this speech on race in America yesterday in Philadelphia, even though his speech might have the effect of solidifying his position as the presumptive Democratic nominee. There are those who say that he eventually had to give such a speech; that America would simply not elect an African-American President without vetting him on his views on race in America. These people are probably correct, but my judgment is that Obama would have preferred not to face this theme at this time. Much better in September or October, when the campaign only has one person from the opposite party to contend with.
Then again, race is such a hot-button issue in America that one misspoken word on the subject could sink a candidacy. That race is not spoken of in intelligent ways in our national media ups the ante even more--and gives Obama even less wiggle room if he slipped up. Indeed, not only did Obama not want to give a speech on race at this stage of the campaign, but a close reading of his text suggests that he doesn't want to engage in extensive discussions of race in his campaign. He wants to recognize the existence of difference, of resentment and ill feelings, but then bury it under the banner of unity and hope. If he is elected President he may, of course, appoint commissions to try to divine what ails us on the issue of race in America, but at this stage he wants to be fairly colorblind about the issue. Race, in short, can't win him many points. Why, then, did he deal with it and how did he deal with the issue of race in his speech?
The Race "Card" Emerges
Last week ABC news began to air some pieces on the sermons of Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a stalwart of the South Chicago community and (now retired) pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ for 35 years. Irony abounds even before we learn anything that the Rev. Wright said in his sermons. Trinity is, by far, the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, a cerebral, New England-oriented, liberal Protestant denomination that has been losing members the way many middle aged men have been losing hair in the past few decades. While the denomination has declined in membership, Wright has grown his congregation nearly 100-fold, from about 85 to 8500 members. And, the denomination is a predominantly white denomination, with comfortable liberalism dominating its pews and offices, though Trinity in Chicago is a black church. Theological sympathy would certainly explain the supportive words for Wright and Trinity that have come from denominational headquarters this week; economic and racial interests could also explain some of the support. No organization, churches included, is comfortable singling out its largest and most visible entity/unit for special criticsim.
But because the Rev. Wright had said some things criticizing America, especially in the wake of the 9/11/01 attack, and since he brought Obama into the Christian faith through his ministry, married Obama and his wife and baptized Obama's two daughters, ABC felt justfied in proclaiming Obama guilty by association with Wright, as if Wright's critical comments on America were to be attributed also to Obama unless he expressly repudiated them. The stage was set, then, for Obama to have to confront this bogeyman head on, which he did yesterday in his Philadelphia speech.
Analyzing the Speech
In a nutshell, Obama did three things in the speech. (1) He began by wrapping himself in the American flag and in a Constitution that evolves or fills out its meaning in order to meet the exigencies of the day. In so reading the US Constitution, he sides with more liberal judicial folk who are interested in interpreting the text in the light of "evolving standards of decency" of the American republic. (2) He distanced himself from his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Wright, by continually referring to Wright's statements either as inflammatory or as emerging from the cauldron of last generation's civil rights leaders. The point is not an insignificant one. Obama was trying to differentiate what you might call two generations of civil rights leaders: those who were with the Rev. Martin Luther King and others in the 1960s, who fought with marches, and angry rhetoric, the racial inequities that were all around them; and those of a younger generation who are more interested in building coalitions, hope, unity and a racially-inclusive society for all. (3) He wanted to swallow up all of the racial problems that exist under the larger banner of unity and hope, even as he recognized that persistent problems exist in the African-American and other cultures.
The two most illuminating paragraphs of this speech, in my judgment, are when he tried to show that African-Americans as well as other Americans feel considerable anger about the way things are in America. First, he mentions the African-American rage:
"The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
But then, before you can believe that Obama is trying to get "special treatment" for Black Americans, he quickly continues with these words:
"In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
What is the answer, when there is considerable rage in both Black and White communities? Of course, elect Barack to be President, and he will bring a new spirit of hope, optimism and unity. He says:
"But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."
Yet, is he really wanting to begin discussions on racial reconciliation or healing? Not on your life, at least not during the political campaign. There would be much to much to lose and very little to gain. For before America can deal with the rage that is felt, it would have to hear a fairly deep cistern of the stuff. And that is too much to bear for a Presidential candidate.
The speech will have been successful if his campaign is able to move off the race issue now. Obama would desperately like to make his a "colorblind" campaign, where stories of a white campaign worker in South Carolina being the lure for elderly African-American voters to show up in support of Obama (a story with which he ended his speech) would be more prevalent. I think there is probably a little subtle racism even in the suggestion that Obama denounce his own pastor. Be that is it may, his speech was more credible, I believe, than Romney's speech on religion, even though the bottom line was clear--elect me and I will bring unity to America. Right...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long