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Obama’s Race Speech Shifts The Conversation

Today in Philadelphia, the junior Illinois senator gave a speech on race in America. Barack Obama was specifically responding to the media firestorm over the demagogic remarks of his ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the perception that his long relationship with … Read More

By / March 18, 2008

Today in Philadelphia, the junior Illinois senator gave a speech on race in America. Barack Obama was specifically responding to the media firestorm over the demagogic remarks of his ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the perception that his long relationship with Wright would do significant, perhaps fatal damage to his candidacy. But rather than make a cautious statement "denouncing and rejecting" Wright, Obama chose to swing for the fences, giving a long oration on the often fractious multiracial composition of the United States, the country's tortured but steadily progressive history of race relations, and how he, as a multiracial man with roots across multiple continents, fits into the American story.

The gambit was at once ambitious and savvy — ambitious because Obama was aiming to completely shift the optics through which racial issues in this campaign are viewed; savvy because any optics-shifting would necessarily entail a shift away from narrow squabbles over Wright or the unsought Farrakhan endorsement. A conservative play, in this case, would have been a losing play.

Although the Wright imbroglio raised many questions for Obama, the primary one was simply this: As his candidacy is premised upon the idea of healing the ugly wounds of racial and regional divisions in the past, could he continue to be such a candidate in light of his membership in Wright's church? His implicit answer, and the key statement of the speech, was this:

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.

…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.

 

In contextualizing Wright's statements, Obama does not excuse them. On the contrary, he denounces them as wrong both intrinsically and instrumentally. But he nevertheless locates them, properly, in a particular history in which the monstrous treatment that millions of people experienced because of the color of their skin left scars that persist to the present day. And he further places that history in parallel with a history of white resentment over the fact that their travails and struggles are scarcely acknowledged, and indeed, that many whites also perceive themselves as disadvantaged by their skin tone. Both communities have legitimate causes for grievance, which is not to justify their resentments for a moment.

To those who have suggested that Obama maintains some fanciful belief in his ability, if elected, to wave a wand over the country and relieve centuries of racial antagonism, the speech is a profound tu quoque. 'It is not I, but you,' he is saying, 'who naively cling to a belief in a sanitized country in which racial grievances are confined to isolated cases so over the top that they have no connection at all to the lives of respectable people. That is a fantasy; and only by acknowledging reality can we begin to work to improve it.' And indeed, the only ones among us who don't have crazy uncles or aunts who say repugnant things from time to time but are nevertheless part of our identities, are the crazy uncles and aunts themselves. In the Jewish community alone, there is no shortage of people whose pride in their heritage and support for the Jewish state extends into regarding Arabs and Muslims generally as less human and less equal than we are.

Obama's parallel historical reckoning of black and white racial resentments, the
major theme of the speech, is mirrored in his parallel understanding of his relationship with Jeremiah Wright and his relationship with his white grandmother:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman 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.

There is an obvious disanalogy between Wright and Obama's grandmother, namely that Obama didn't choose his grandmother. But the point Obama's critics have raised against him is not (or not primarily) that he chose to join the Trinity United Church in the first place, but that he chose not to leave. And on this score, the comparison to his grandmother is apt. After leaving her care, Obama might have turned his back on his grandmother and never spoken to her again. Given the hurt she caused him through her insensitivity, he might well have been justified in doing so. But he didn't; because he constitutionally couldn't; because her identity, including her imperfections, were a part of his own. Obama's relationship with Wright and the Trinity Church is of a similar if not identical nature. And the notion that Wright's feelings about whites seeped into Obama is about as plausible as the notion that he inherited his grandmother's feelings about blacks.

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