Obama’s speech on race and Rev. Wright

There’s a lot of analysis out there in the blogosphere and on the MSM sites.  For what it’s worth, the speech Sen. Obama gave in Philadelphia this morning is one of those historical making types.  People will discuss this speech in the future.

The speech, entitled “A More Perfect Union” focused not only on the racism that has played out in this presidential campaign, but also on the racism that permeates American society.  Sen. Obama, relayed history and context to make his points concisely and precisely.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

At this point in the speech, he’s hanging in the balance.  The question:  Will he throw Rev. Wright under the bus is unanswered.  No matter how much the Clinton’s supporters want to whine and blame the Obama campaign for racism, there is no doubt that the Clinton’s are the ones who spent December and January injecting race into the campaign.  After spending the summer and fall of 2007 stating that Sen. Obama wasn’t black enough for their black supporters, they decided to tell their white supporters that he’s too black.  For many people, South Carolina was the turning point. They either weren’t paying attention or willing to give the Clinton’s the benefit of the doubt.

On one hand, it’s a shame that Sen. Obama even needed to give a speech addressing Rev. Wright’s comments. On February 26th during a Democratic debate, we saw Tim Russert shamelessly press Sen. Obama on Louis Farrakhan’s support.You’ll remember that Louis Farrakhan gave a speech where he said that he liked Obama.  Russert, during a debate then pressed (and pressed and pressed) Obama to denounce Farrakhan.  The very next day, Sen. John McCain was receive the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee.  A right-wing pastor who’s endorsement, John McCain actively sought.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, Sen. McCain was never initially pressed to distance himself from Hagee and his comments:

Yesterday, though, the equally fringe, radical and hateful (at least) Rev. John Hagee — a white evangelical who is the pastor of a sprawling “mega-church” in Texas — enthusiastically endorsed John McCain. Did McCain have to jump through the same hoops which Russert and others set up for Obama and “denounce” Hagee’s extremism and “reject” his support? No; quite the opposite. McCain said he was “very honored” to receive this endorsement and, when asked about some of Hagee’s more twisted views, responded: “all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee’s support.”

In fact, the following Sunday on Meet the Press, Tim Russert all but ignored the fact that Hagee had endorsed McCain. On Bill Bennett’s radio show, Sen. McCain did eventually wind up repudiating Hagee’s remarks saying that “they were taken out of context”.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.[snip]

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

There.  For the umpteenth millionth time in a week Sen. Obama has condemned the 2 minutes of speech snippets being used to define Rev. Wright’s career.  Of course, there are intellectually lazy people who’ll hold on to their chewed up bone of hate and stupidity and repeat, “But why didn’t he leave the church?  How can we trust his judgment?”.  I’m sorry, but for those people who say that and are Clinton supporters I have to laugh.  Loudly.  You have a woman married to a man who has consistently cheated on her and we’re supposed to trust her judgment?  You have a woman who didn’t bother to read the NIE report, but still went ahead an authorized use of force in Iraq, while trying to deny that thought she was authorizing use of force, despite the fact that the bill was called Authorization for Use of Military Force…and we’re supposed to trust her judgment?  You have a woman who then went ahead and voted for more of the same in regards to Iran…and we’re supposed to trust her judgment.

Okay.

One of the best things about Obama’s speech is the fact that he did not throw Wright under the bus.  Instead of dumping on the guy like most politicians would have, Obama instead explained him…made him human.  Remember, that Rev. Wright not only married the Obama’s, but baptized his children.  If the guy were a complete nutjob, do you really think that Sen. Obama would really be running for President of the United States?

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

On the internet, it’s easy to read a line, get outrage and demand heads to roll.  I try to wait for context–especially if Fox is pushing a story like they did with this one.  I want to see video, read a speech.  But for anyone to see a few lines from a person they didn’t know existed yesterday and determine his or her entire career based on that, marks them as mentally stunted.  One of the reasons I didn’t initially blog on Ferraro’s “he’s lucky he’s black” statements was because of this.  I was assuming it was said in a joking way.  I didn’t know that Ferraro said the same thing back in ’88 in reference to Jesse Jackson.  But it came right on the heels of her “it sucks to be a rich, middle-aged, white woman in America” op-ed and her subsequent TV appearances didn’t help.

But you’ll see the double standard there too.  Samantha Power, while interviewing overseas about her upcoming book, states that Sen. Clinton is a monster.  The Clinton’s campaign immediately calls for Power to be fired from the Obama campaign.  Power tendered her resignation immediately.  Geraldine Ferraro, who sat on the Clinton’s finance committee, says that Sen. Obama is basically an affirmative action candidate, then says, “I was only speaking for myself, not the campaign.” You know…like Powers was.  The Clinton’s campaign first reaction was to blame the Obama campaign “for playing the race card”.  Ferraro resigned 3 days later.

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.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

Old people.  What are you gonna do?

My grandfather (maternal), a preacher, was a bigot–and not a good man.  Scratch that…he made bigots look reasonable.  He used every racist term in the book for everyone.  Even talking to him right before he died, I remember he asked me about, “That little honkey girl with the gook friend.”  Ugh.  There was no changing him.  When I was little, there wasn’t a black man in my life who didn’t use a slur for white people.  I was raised knowing white people as “crackers” and “peckerwoods”.   I had no idea those were bad words.  When after we moved off base into my grandpa’s (paternal) house. I remember one morning looking out the 3rd story window and seeing white people moving into our black middle-class neighborhood.  My father was outside washing his car.  I screamed, “Daddy, the peckerwoods are here!”  I think I repeated it like 5 times at the top of my voice.  My daddy ran up those stairs so fast…he told me that he never wanted to hear me say anything like that again.  He didn’t say, “in front of white people”, he said, “ever”.  I was 4 years old and after that, I had never heard him use a derogatory term to describe white people.

Then, Obama’s speech did a beautiful thing.  It proved that his is about unity.  It proved that he understood the way America works.  In fact, the next part I’m going to quote, I guarantee will be stolen and woven into Clinton’s upcoming speeches:

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.

This is where you realized that anyone who dismisses this speech as empty rhetoric has a lot riding on their own hatred of Obama and their inherent bigotry.  There is nothing to refute in this passage.  It’s America, right or wrong…and we know it.  I’ve been saying it, lots of others have been saying it.  The people in the media pretend that it’s really not that bad unless it really, really affects the working class white voter.  But there’s something important here:  We have never had a leader say it.

I’m 35.  I’ve never been particularly in awe of this country as an operational organization.  As a piece of geography, I love this place, but in theory…meh.  It’s hard.  It’s hard to pretend that as a woman everything is hunky-dory.  It’s hard to pretend that as a black person everything is hunky-dory.  It’s hard to pretend as a liberal, as a Muslim, as one-half of an interacial relationship, as a parent…get what I’m saying.   The true-believers, those “America:  Love it or Leave it” types don’t get it.  They see my skin, my sex and immediately blame me for any problems I have even if they mirror their problems.  But that’s okay, because they have their preachers telling them that it is my fault.  Not a breakdown in government or leadership, because of “them”.

Those people are waiting for some talking head or preacher to tell them that it’s okay…”Give in into your hate.”  They don’t have to listen to Obama because they’ll make up pretend instances of “codewords” despite the fact that this speech wasn’t given to black America, it was given to America.  Sen. Obama drew the line.  He said, “Here’s where were are.  Now you can cross the line and move into the future or you can stay over there and dwell in the past.”

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This is where the spin, the media’s filter comes into play.  You saw that on the faces of the chatterboxes after the speech.  The white pundits looked morose.  They didn’t know how to spin it.  The black pundits were thrilled.  Impressed.  Without expressly pointing out the media, he did call them to task over their gossipy ways and their involvement in talking about nothing, while the important issues that truly affect our lives are ignored:

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

 

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

 

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

 

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

It’s a beautiful speech.  I always mention how Sen. Obama’s speech always have me ready to hang a 50′ flag in my front yard and salute it every morning.  This speech is so over and beyond that.  This speech has me loving all of mankind.  Even the cootie-fied haters.

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7 thoughts on “Obama’s speech on race and Rev. Wright

  1. Excellent analysis. It was – and will stand out over time – an historical speech for sure. He stands up with dignity and responds to everything *and* the kitchen sink that is thrown at him. THAT is a leader who is ready right NOW to lead this nation down a new path that is far far too long in coming.

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  2. Thank You so much for this. I have been struggling to explain to some friends,in-laws,etc. why A. Obama is not and should not be held accountable for the things Rev.Wright(or anyone for that matter) has said whether they have merit(which they do) or not.
    B. That glaring double standards exist(Hagee is a fantastic example) and C. That this is another fine example of the media and the powers that be in this country using distraction to keep us from examining ,discussing and working towards solutions for the real problems in our country. Hope you don’t mind that I will be quoting you liberally.

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  3. It was a great speech. I just pray that most people will take the time and effort to listen to or read the entire thing. While in some ways I think the speech was a little too long for most people (but not for me), race is a very complicated issue which cannot be examined or addressed glibly or in mere soundbites. I felt like this speech did a wonderful job of 1) showing that complexity while 2) showing that it can be addressed and dealt with.

    BTW, while you had an experience with your father after you used a racial slur, I had a similar experience with my mother when as a young child I used a racial slur. I’ll post something about it in the next day or two, but for now suffice it to say that a head lock, running water, and soap were all involved. 🙂

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  4. It was an amazing speech and I wish I had caught all of it (I was at Toyota getting my car fixed and it was done before the speech was). Thank you for the analysis.

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  5. The talking heads will work hard to reduce this speech to nothingness. I read that no less than crazy Mike Huckabee was the rational adult on the Joe Scarborough show this morning and said that while he doesn’t agree with the statements he’s going to cut some slack to a person who grew up in segregated/racist America as he can understand why they’d be angry. He also said, as a preacher, he’s sure that he’s said things that wouldn’t sound great either.

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  6. I see the GOP has decided that they were going to exhume the dead horse and try to get it to win a race. I hope that proving that they are the party of racists shows just how irrelevant these people are. Are they sure they want to play that game?

    Look at it this way: Whenever a GOP pundit or politician gets quoted as saying something horrendous, the first thing they do is claim that it was “taken out of context”. 99% of the time, that’s a bald-faced lie.

    The pundits who are dismissing the speech are charlatans. Within the speech itself, Obama calls them out and they pretend he didn’t say anything. They pick a line and run with it. If anything, they’re actions are removing the mask and showing them for what they are. What they did to Wright, they are doing to Obama’s speech. Only the willfully ignorant will follow them off that cliff.

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