Speaking about Racism: A Critical Speech by Senator Obama

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.

He then shows some courage in not throwing his friend Dr. Wright to the wolves:

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

Thus he shows loyalty and commitment to friends who have stood beside him over years, and rejects advice he doubtless got to attack Wright and abandon the church. He then moves to an important point about race:

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America –to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality—he ignores reality here.

Though starting with an important point, he retreats to the white-framed position that Wright’s critical assessments of some major negative features of the United States, such as the large-scale racial discrimination within its borders that destroys black and other lives every day (see here) or the imperialistic Iraq war, are “distortions” of reality. A majority of African Americans, and many other Americans, would agree with Dr. Wright’s points about white racism or U.S. imperialism. Why cannot a black presidential candidate today “speak truth to power” on these issues as well? Senator Obama then moves to assess the impact of the racial past on the present. After discussing the heavy burdens of past slavery and legal segregation, he adds:

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

Legitimate black anger is then noted:

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.

For Senator Obama, the anger of African Americans about racial oppression, while real, seems to be more a matter of past discrimination than a reaction to present-day whites’ discrimination. This is a major weakness in what is to here a fairly good speech. Obama seems here to view the world more from the white racial frame. Moreover, in his next comment he plays even more strongly into the white framing. After discussing white resentments over job losses, busing for education, affirmative action, and crime, he adds this:

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.

The point about white distractions is good, but somehow legitimate black anger over four centuries of racial oppression, including current racial hostility and discrimination by usually privileged whites, is counterposed to and balanced with the white anger over attempts to remedy that discrimination, such as affirmative action, or over nonracial economic issues such as corporate exportation of jobs. This rhetorical trick plays down the continuing reality of deep racial oppression in the United States, and more or less takes whites off the hook for that institutional and systemic reality. Contemporary racial reality is not about some “misguided” black anger, but rather about racial oppression that has never been removed or remedied.

As he nears his conclusion, Senator Obama picks up again on his major campaign theme of sociopolitical change, first by charging Dr. Wright unfairly:

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.

Actually, Dr. Wright is quite aware that change is possible and has happened, having been in the civil rights movement himself, and regularly preaching sermons about hope and change. Then Obama adds what is perhaps his strongest statement on contemporary racial matters:

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

The commentary would have been much stronger if Senator Obama had put it in the section on black anger. Still, Obama does note the “current” incidents of discrimination, but plays that down a bit with the “less overt” phrase. (Research shows much such discrimination is still overt and intentional.) And then he firmly calls for action not just words. This action commentary is very much in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, Senator Obama then moves away from this point about racial discrimination to reject the vague straw man of people in the society “breeding division,” which he set up by citing Dr. Wright, and thus to accent his often repeated option of great national unity:

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.

Here is the type of rhetoric for which Senator Obama is justly famous, but it also leaves us wondering who will do this (government, presumably) and how it will be done. Then before telling a final poignant campaign story, he accents this further type of unity comment for which he is famous:

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.

On the whole, Senator Obama presented a courageous speech that deals more centrally with race and racism than any major candidate for president ever has, and in some ways quite forthrightly. He offers the country hope and the kind of optimism we all want to feel. He appeals to our better natures. Thus, MSNBC has an nonscientific survey on its website. Some 80,000 people had responded as of noon March 18, 2008, and two thirds thought the speech was honest and dealt with the important issues.


The great weakness of the speech lies in its failure to address head-on the deep structures of racial hostility and oppression that still undergird and pervade all major U.S. institutions. In some ways, of course, that is much more a failure of this country than of Senator Obama, and it is noteworthy that Senators Clinton and McCain have not even touched on these matters of racism like Senator Obama. Indeed, most whites, especially, and many other Americans are not yet ready for that discussion of white racism in the United States.


  1. adia

    I think this critique of Obama’s speech is very insightful, and it definitely was an historic, groundbreaking moment in American politics and in our society. I would only add that perhaps the flaws/omissions in Obama’s speech reflect not so much his unawareness of these issues, but the limitations of our current political structure. In other words, assuming that Senator Obama is very well aware of current, ongoing discrimination and the fallacy of equating Black anger at racism with whites’ anger at a loss of privilege, would he be able to voice these points and realistically expect to maintain his lead or any shot at the White House? I’m making an assumption here, b/c he truly may not know about these things or he may minimize their significance. But part of the issue with contemporary US politics is that it seems to always require some level of deception; our 2 party system minimizes the chance of a variety of different viewpoints, so candidates have to be many things to many people. Perhaps his use of the white racial frame is a recognition of the limitations he encounters as a Black man politician in what is still a very racist society, and the “necessity” of saying things that are to an extent politically expedient rather than what you genuinely believe.


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