On Obama’s Speech on Race in America

19 03 2008

On Tuesday, Barack Obama delivered a masterful high-toned and frank speech in Philadelphia about race and the American condition.

His detractors will contend that Obama did not successfully distance himself from Rev. Wright since he only condemned his remarks rather than aggressively denounce the man. In truth, selling out Rev. Wright would have been what most pols would have done and the public, even significant swaths of black America, would have understood the abandonment to be a casualty due to the fog of campaigning. Obama would then simply absorb criticism for flip flopping on his support for his pastor and move to reassure voters that he is still the political equivalent of Tiger Woods.

But instead Obama choose a more difficult route. He opted to explain in plain English why he was attracted to his Rev. Wright’s ministry, what led a black folk of Wright’s generation to have to be gripped by such rage, and why he could not completely disassociate himself from his pastor.

Obama informed us “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” Its no secret that Rev. Wright was a spiritual mentor of sorts to Obama, but the Illinois Senator bravely sought to explain to the general public lived experience of the black situation.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

Growing up in such an conditions tend to engender a corrosive and embittered understanding of race among and between different racial groups. But, like his grandmother who loved him dearly yet would often make racially stereotypical remarks, Obama admitted that even though he disagreed with the indictments of America born out of such an experience “these people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

Not content to simply explain away Rev. Wright’s anger, Obama offered reasons for why he thought his pastor failed to measure what was wrong with America against what was good about it. Obama essentially made the case that Rev. Wright’s perspective on America was hamstrung by an experience in another era and has yet to come to terms with today’s environment.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Obama chided his own pastor for not living up to his own teachings about the audacity of hope, and for not recognizing how the campaign offers a strong rebuke to Rev. Wright’s stark understanding of America. It was a clear admonishment of his pastor’s views. Who would have thought in the most important speech of his political career thus far Obama would be preaching to his preacher?

This is a subtle and sophisticated point that probably won’t be conveyed by the media in its reporting, though anyone watching the full 45 minutes of the video could quickly grasp it. This now brings me to my greater concern. The speech itself was as rich with wisdom and it was moving. But anything with this kind of gravity and complexity is bound to be given short shrift in a media landscape populated more by chattering shoot from the hip types than sober thinkers and the fair mind observers.

It will be easy to take lines out of context and make it seemed as if Obama provided unqualified support of Rev. Wrights most controversial statements.

But to have the courage of your convictions means that some risks are unavoidable.




2 responses

19 03 2008


Why is a guy who grew up a rich kid with a Kenyan father and Southern White mother (no ties to being a slave whatsoever) lecturing Northern Whites regarding the Civil War when it was our ancestors who fought and died in the Union Army to free the slaves?

Is Obama kidding or what? Yes, Senator Obama, let’s have a discussion about race in America and then maybe you’ll understand why you are in absolute freefall against John McCain in States like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. You ripped a scab off of a wound that we didn’t deserve to have inflicted in the first place.


19 03 2008


As Obama noted in his book in “Dreams of my Father” he did not grow up rich. He may have been fortunate to attend very good primary and secondary schools, but for a time while his mother was getting her post graduate degree, they were living on foodstamps.

That does not mean he grew up in abject poverty, but it does mean that calling him a rich kid is inaccurate. His mother also sent him to live with his grandparents in Hawaii in part because she could not afford to take care of him on her own.

As for the dip in the polls, that’s due to a combination of negative attacks by the Clinton campaign, conservative talk radio, Fox News. Its also due to a series of unforced errors on his campaign including the gaffe by Samantha Power and the perceived tit for tat on race that involved both campaigns during the Ferraro controversy. All of which served to drive up his negatives in the polling.

Barack Obama is a black man married to a black woman with black children. Anyone with that kid of profile inherits the history of all black Americans whether you are an 15th generation black Alabaman or a 2nd generation Kenyan.

More importantly, after watching the speech in its entirety I don’t think anyone can truthfully accuse Obama of cheaply exploiting race to gin up votes. It almost never favors black politicians of his standing to discuss race so frankly.

I think the speech served to illuminate how the problem and even spectacle of race has haunted the campaign, because of the negative attacks ads of others and the recent controversy over Rev. Wright’s comments.

That said, I hardly think it was a lecture. I did not think was anything condescending or even cheap about it. You may certainly disagree with his points or line of argument, but to be fair it was very risky for him to even take on this topic and situate it in historical terms.

He could have easily been lampooned by the press and his rivals as being too obsessed with a topic people still think is dead.

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