This morning, March 18, 2008, Senator Barack Obama gave what is probably the most important speech ever given by a leading U.S. presidential candidate on racial matters. His speech has so far been both praised and condemned across the media and the web. Let us look closely at some points he makes.
Senator Obama’s opening statement is strong and expected, given that he is in Philadelphia’s constitution center:
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.
A bit later he makes these excellent critical observations on the long struggle of people’s movements for change in this country:
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time. This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.
He wisely connects the current efforts to bring social-political change and unite Americans across racial lines to the long years of protest aimed at bringing the mostly rhetorical ideals (for whites) of the old liberty-and-justice frame to reality. As might be expected, he then works in some of his dramatic biography:
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. . . . and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
Whatever the final results, one of the legacies of this remarkable political year will be Senator Obama’s incredible personal story, one of biracial heritage and global experience, and also of courageous struggle and success against great odds to become the first major presidential candidate who is not white. Next Senator Obama begins his commentary on Dr. Jeremiah Wright, whose brief words as put out in the mainstream media he condemns thus:
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. . . . 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. 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.
After condemning the decontextualized sermon snippets the media have presented, but not their biased media analysts and extreme decontextualization, Senator Obama makes the savvy point that most people have sometimes disagreed with what their religious leaders. He goes on to condemn the points that Dr. Wright makes in the snippets, some of which are in fact well-supported by social science research. For example, of course white racism is still endemic and foundational, and very widespread in white practice today. For evidence, see here and here. Moreover, the latter part of this speech sounds like it was made by a committee, including the stereotypical sound-bite phrase about “radical Islam.” This latter point plays into the common stereotypes of Islamic peoples as “radical,” when most are not, and appears to take the U.S. government off the hook for Middle Eastern upheavals. Continue reading…