Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Speech

Barack Obama's speech yesterday was a remarkable performance. Some politicians would have "denounced" the inflamatory words of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright and got on with other things as quickly as possible. That would have been hard for Obama, given his longstanding ties to this man. But he managed to reject the explicit remarks Rev. Wright made, while putting them in the context of the rhetoric of black liberation theology--not denying the legitimacy of the minister's argument, but marking his own distance from what he called the "static" view of race in America that the minister's remarks reflected:

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 distinguishes his own generation from the generation in which Rev. Wright grew up, and in the process works to weave together the complicated stories of being black and white in America:

They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. 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.
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.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
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.
As the New York Times editorial this morning states, Obama "put Mr. Wright, his beliefs and the reaction to them into the larger context of race relations with an honestly seldom heard in public life."

In a culture of sound bites there's a real danger that this speech will not undo the damage that has been done to Obama's campaign, that the inflammatory words of the minister will be all it takes to drive some voters away. But that would be a shame. In this speech, Obama faced perhaps the toughest challenge yet to his campaign. As the Times said, "It is hard to imagine how he could have handled it better."

Delivered in the shadow of Independence Hall, it was a speech for the ages. Read (or watch) the whole thing.

UPDATE: Jonathan Tilove's insightful coverage of the speech:

Barack Obama's speech on race was entitled "A More Perfect Union.'' But it might have been called "Waking From the Dream.''

With it, Obama dashed the fancy that 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., America, in an act of timely wish-fulfillment, might elect a black man president while skipping lightly over questions of race.

But more than that, Obama was both true to himself — ending a self-imposed silence on matters central to who he is — and true to the deeper meaning of King.

Come the April 4 anniversary of King's death, it will now be far harder to be satisfied with platitudes. Very much in the spirit of King's 1963 "I Have a Dream'' speech — and unlike the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that made the Illinois senator's reputation — Obama's words this week were less an idealized paean to America's aspirations and more a gritty accounting of its real history, its present quagmire, and the long slog ahead.

. . . more.

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