Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack Obama on Race in America - A Major Step in Political Speech

Here is today's speech on race by Barack Obama, followed by some responses. My thoughts at the end.

You can read the whole text of the speech here.

Andrew Sullivan loved the speech (earning him MD's douchebag nomination):

It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.

And it was a reflection of faith - deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America - its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union - today, in our time, in our way.

I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

Drew Cline, writing at the NRO's The Corner, also seemed pretty impressed by the ability Obama demonstrated to acknowledge racial issues in America, but to transcend them in understanding that America is so much more than that.

But here was Obama praising the Founders for their ideals. Here he was noting the stain of slavery, but not letting it become THE story of the Founders, but only a part of the story, not letting it press out the reverence the Founders are due.

That might be the lasting legacy of this speech. The Jeremiah Wright controversy will eventually become a footnote in American political history. But the moment of the first serious black contender for the Oval Office speaking with reverence and admiration for slave-owning Founding Fathers, and dismissing explicitly the idea that the United States is, by virtue of the nation's Original Sin of slavery, a fundamentally racist nation, has the potential to become a turning point.

Nicholas D. Kristof, in his On the Ground column for the New York Times, felt it was the best speech this year, or maybe even since a keynote speech in 2004.

I thought that Obama’s basic pitch was right: Whites need to acknowledge the legitimacy of blacks’ complaints about the legacy of Jim Crow, and blacks can’t let anger be an excuse to fail to read to their kids. In general, Obama’s emphasis on education as a remedy feels just right: The biggest way we fail black kids today is with poor inner-city schools, and that’s the best ladder we can offer to overcome social and racial inequity.

If you haven’t seen or heard the speech, do so. It was a masterpiece to go down in history along with Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” and Kennedy’s about his Catholicism.

Jim Wallis made this observation about Obama and his faith as it relates to race:

Barack Obama represents that hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope, and even the possibility of racial unity. Obama's attraction to many who are white, especially a new generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in the U.S. But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Barack Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African-American community, and God's promise for the future are all clearly articulated. That's why he began attending Trinity Church, where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Finally, John McWhorter, at The New Republic, had this observation about the stance Obama has taken in criticizing his elders.

In his speech in Philadelphia this morning, Barack Obama revealed that he is most definitely his own man.

Those who have found Obama's statements of dissociation from his pastor Jeremiah Wright's statements a tad studious must now be satisfied. This time, Obama did not rest with incendiary and divisive--words which harbor potential toleration (i.e. maybe a little divisiveness is healthy?).

He pegged Wright's recreational alienation as wrong, as stereotyping, as a "profound mistake," as founded upon a canard that America has made no progress on race.

It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one's elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright's vintage.

For a light-skinned half-white Ivy League-educated black man to repudiate, in clear language and repeatedly, the take on race of people like Julian Bond and Nikki Giovanni is not only honest but truly bold.

A certain strain of black bloggers will be blowing their tops for a week, while some black writers of mature years will remind us in editorials that Wright's vision of America is more present-tense than Obama's speech implies.

OK, then, I think this may have been too long for the average American to give a damn. What we will get over the next few days is sound bites that can't possibly convey the depth of what Obama had to say. That's too bad.

This is one of the best speeches by any politician I have ever heard on the topic of race. He managed to join the progressive desire to see racism end and all people have equal rights and opportunities with the conservative value of self-determination. That's huge.

All too often, racial equality is sought through legislation, not in seeing Black Americans as having the same needs and desires as ALL Americans. This may be the most important part of the speech, the moment that will be remembered for decades to come.

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 is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American - and yes, conservative - notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

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.

I am more convinced than ever that Obama is the candidate who I want to see become our next president. He truly is a candidate of hope, of reason, and of inspiration. He speaks to our better angels, rather than invoking our darkest fears.

I am reminded of the conclusion to Lincoln's first Inaugural Address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

May the current Senator from Illinois find within his heart the wisdom to lead this nation with the same integrity that the first Senator from Illinois to become President demonstrated all those years ago.


Unknown said...

Yes, Obama is magnificent. He makes me proud to be an American.

Anonymous said...

I watched this speech online during my lunch hour yesterday, and I must say I was a bit floored by the depth of it. I think it was a bold move to take this controversy with his reverend and turn it into an opportunity to have a very real discussion about race that is an absolute necessity for our country going forward.

I won't say much more about it, as you have covered most of it already, but I have to say, I can't think of another politician who would stand up and do what Obama has done here. Most would go into damage control mode in the face of a similar controversy and hope that it would fade into the woodwork. I'm glad to see he has chosen to act differently.