Troubling Parallels

20 03 2008

Delivering one of the greatest speeches of our era does not render anyone immune from criticism. Consider Michael Gerson. WaPo columnist and former George W. Bush speech writer, Gerson objected to a certain comparison Senator Barack Obama made in his landmark speech on race in Philly on Tuesday. Gerson took issue with how Obama suggested Rev. Wright’s comments condemning America were somehow parallel in scope or in degree to his grandmother’s prejudicial views.

Reverend Wright’s controversial remarks strongly condemn America for intentionally flooding drugs into black neighborhoods, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and other destructive ideas. Obama has gone on record as denouncing these remarks as divisive and inaccurate.

In his speech, Obama described his grandmother as someone “who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

In response, Gerson wrote that perhaps “Grandma may have had some issues to work through, Wright is accusing the American government of trying to kill every member of a race. There is a difference.” Sure there is. But in my opinion those pushing this criticism are missing the real point of Obama’s speech.

Obama sought to convey the very visceral nature of how racial prejudice is experienced in America. The anger, the frustration, and the resentment that Rev. Wright and others like him feel is inextricably linked to the often causal and other times very explicit prejudice evinced by whites like Obama’s grandmother. In fact, each response and counter response feed off the other in subtle ways most of us fail to appreciate, until we are segregated into our own small corners.

Obviously, this can hit close to home. In other words, Obama was telling us the prejudice afflicts America writ large can be found in his own family as much as it can be in yours and mine. And it is this prejudice that serves to “to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality,” as Obama noted in his speech.

This intimate knowledge of the negative effects racial bias is what was referring to when he said, “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

And while such an admission does not absolve people of the magnitude of their sins it does attempt to grapple with the full measure of who we are as people. In my mind, this key insight provides Obama’s speech so much of its raw power and its uncommon wisdom.

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3 responses

20 03 2008
Aaron

“… those pushing this criticism are missing the real point of Obama’s speech.”

In most cases, I believe that’s intentional.

20 03 2008
KUT

I believe you are right about a good number of people, but even among those attracted to Obama’s campaign might feel the same way too.

I honestly don’t know if they are the majority or the minority.

But I at least suspect there are those thinking about it and feel uneasy about even discussing in an open and frank way.

21 03 2008
Wayne

The full context of rev. wright’s speech.

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