Obama on race

So one of the most inspiring and intelligent political speeches of my time, comparable with Kennedy's, has been delivered while I was either in transit or sleeping (I can't work out which). I have read it, and I have this to say.

Obama treats his hearers as intelligent adults, not to be swayed by the spin and public relations of the right leaning (leaning? OK, right-wing) mainstream media. As a commentator noted at Ed Brayton's blog, the sort of things that Obama's minister was saying are routinely said by the evangelical darlings of the right. Frankie Schaeffer, son of Francis J. Schaeffer, an early evangelical rightist, noted that his dad said this all the time and was invited to Republican White House gatherings.

From here, safely away from American media (ha!) what it looks like Obama did was raise the discourse to serious issues, in a democratic and realistic manner. America does have incredible disparities by race, but most Americans are so desensitised to it by living there all their lives they sometimes don't see the reason for fuss. Instead they worry over fake issues like the sanctity of marriage and wars on abstract objects.

Rather than a war on drugs, how about putting all those resources to beating the poverty and lack of social mobility that covaries by race and ethnicity? Drugs would become a lot less concerning if Hispanics and African-Americans weren't in such bad conditions and so distinct from the social fabric as to need them. When America works, it works very well indeed; why not expand this to all citizens and inhabitants?

In short, Obama did not "play the race card" as the Murdoch newspapers are spinning it. That was already played by Clinton and the Republicans. He addressed the single most crucial issue to the structure of American society.

In this foreigner's opinion, of course...

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Well, for a foreigner, you get it. With Obama being in the lead for delegates, race had to come to the surface. There was and is no way to pretend now that the problem of racism ended with the passages of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts more than 40 years ago.

I know people who consider themselves "enlightened" on race issues who think that black Americans should be satisfied with what we have accomplished; who use the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to argue against "reverse racism." I know people who think that anybody who speaks out about race is a microphone-grabber. I know people who think that trapping people in the New Orleans Superdome without sufficient food and water is a valid social experiment to show how black Americans will act if left on their own.

Race is a problem that Americans don't want to admit to, and Obama is putting a mirror in front of our faces. The right wing who focus on the most inflammatory remarks of Jeremiah Wright would rather ignore the anger that led him to say such things. I, myself, don't get upset about what he said.

God Damn a country which holds itself up as the shelter of freedom yet practices oppression. God Damn a country that brags about human rights and then illegally confines prisoners or renditions them to countries that have no laws against torture. God Damn a country that builds itself into the most powerful nation on the planet using slave labor and then says we don't owe them anything.

God Damn a country where people were lynched for being black, and then never brings the vigilante to justice because it was too far in the past. Jeremiah Wright is right. America is no more free than most other countries, and we should stop bragging about freedom until we get the racism thing straightened out.

Obama is right that we can't fix our problem of race until we face it square and call racism wrong. He is right that blacks can't fix it all by themselves, that we need to work together to do it. But we shouldn't shy away from shaming the guilty in order to get to where we need to go. We can't tell black Americans just to forgive and forget. We show we are willing to work to make progress.

"He addressed the single most crucial issue to the structure of American society."

Yes. And until the rest of American society joins him in addressing this blot on our soul, we will never be what a free people should be.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

Well said, John.

I have had Obama as my favoured choice for a number of months already and I hope you brought me back a pin or something!

It is sad that the Murdoch press has spun the speach the way they have. (And I noticed that Ms. Clinton said she didn't watch it. I say "yeah, right".)

By Marc Buhler (not verified) on 19 Mar 2008 #permalink

Obama's speech was probably the best political speech in at least the last 20 years. The only one that compares in quality was Al Franken's about why he was running for the Senate.

I guess we heard different things. I saw an excellent job at damage control and spin, but nothing all that meaningful about any actual issue. He told us repeatedly that he disagrees with Rev. Wright, but he somehow failed to tell us how or why. What I would have liked was for Obama to take up both of the major issues that Wright (and Ferraro) brought up: race and gender. Wright said, trivially and truthfully, that "no one called Hillary nigger". True, but people have, and still do, call her bitch and worse. Yes, America has treated African-Americans, but it has also treated women badly. Wright deliberately denigrated women's long struggle for equality. I know you are not an American, so I will remind you of some of our history. Women got the vote after Black Men, women got the right to own property after Black Men, women got the right to be lawyers after Black me. And in terms of violence the last state did not outlaw spousal rape until 1975. Those were the issues that Ferraro and Wright brought up, but Obama only dealt with half that equation. I don't know whether he could not see the gender issue or saw it and did not want to mention it. If that former, that is a problem, but if the latter that is a major problem. People tell me over and over that Obama is bringing us together, but if all he can do is bring Whites to Blacks, if he can't deal with the problems of over half the population, then he is not a new kind of politician, he is an old fashioned self-serving niche leader.

By Matt Silb (not verified) on 20 Mar 2008 #permalink

Wow, I got a very different impression from that speech. Down here in the bible-belt you hear two-faced politicians say one thing to one audience and something different to another, all the time. Obama's speech was spin to reconcile one of those moments. He made an effort to talk about race realistically but spoiled it with fuzzy minded platitudes about faith. It's funny (but not in a good way) that he didn't make a stand on any one thing, but he is a politician and they generally avoid that when they can. In short it was a speech for the converted with spin control turned up to 11 to avoid a real conflict.

There are, unfortunately, all too many ministers saying repulsive things and some of them are supporters of, and are supported by, politicians. How I feel about Obama is this: if I do what I need to do, which is judge him by his actions and his words, I find myself thinking "Hope is not a plan, it is not a strategy." The last administration seemed to be fueled by that and look where that got them, expecting things to work without actually having plans for that to happen.

I'm a committed Democrat and have never voted for a Republican presidential candidate and won't be doing that this time. However, if I close my eyes, Obama is just another man running for president. I have no problem with saying that Clinton is not the perfect choice, but she actually talks about plans, not just ideals and I really, really want a woman for president.

By Susan Silberstein (not verified) on 20 Mar 2008 #permalink

It was a good speech, but it didn't break down into decent sized sound bites. The percentage of people willing to sit still for a thirty minute plus speech is pretty low. Most people saw the Reverend's incendiary statements, and then they heard the portion of Obama's speech where he did something less than refute the man who made those statements. In the context of his larger speech, Obama laid it out quite well, but that larger context is not going to register.

By contrast during a debate between Obama and Clinton concerning Louis Farrakhan (a person widely viewed as an anti-semite in the State), there was this exchange:

CLINTON And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting --

OBAMA If the word "reject" Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word "denounce," then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.

This week has been a big negative for Obama. Despite a great speech and his efforts to the contrary, the emphasis to the American people was the vast difference in political opinion between whites and blacks in this country. And while prejudice is seen as unacceptable, there is open season on political difference.

By Ray Recchia (not verified) on 21 Mar 2008 #permalink

He told us repeatedly that he disagrees with Rev. Wright, but he somehow failed to tell us how or why.

I find it hard to see how Obama could have been more explicit than this:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

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...