Many of you may have heard about the speech that Barack Obama gave on race and race relations today (the video and transcript can be found here); I just finished watching it online. I found it to be very well thought out, measured and brave; many in the punditocracy are calling it one of the most open and honest speeches delivered about race in America by a politician in our lifetime, and I have to say that I agree.
Obama began his run for the presidency by intentionally not making his race a focal point of his candidacy. He has of course acknowledged his race during the campaign; it's obviously not something that he's tried to (or could) hide. He has reminisced about his father and his African heritage, he has invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King and his dream, he has spoken proudly about his church and his relationship with his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but as a rule he has not run as the "black candidate". In his own words, he isn't running for the presidency of black America or the presidency of white America, he's running for the presidency of the United States of America. However it is his relationship with Rev. Wright and the Reverend's views on race relations that have been focused on so heavily in the news cycle of the past week.
For those of you who haven't been following the story, videos have recently surfaced in which the Reverend during some of his sermons had made incendiary remarks about the United States and it's history of discrimination towards black Americans and their African ancestors. These snippets of film and Obama's admittedly close friendship with Rev. Wright have led people to ask if Obama shares these views or not and what that could mean for his candidacy, thus necessitating the need for him to speak publicly on the subject.
I myself have refrained from commenting up to this point because, not being religious or having strong ties to any religious organization, I did not think that it was a legitimate concern. I assumed that thinking Americans could differentiate between the views of one man and those of the pastor of his church; that it would be quite obvious from the wealth of written and spoken material to come from Obama what his thoughts are on virtually any subject. I now see that I have underestimated the depth of feeling that people have concerning religion in politics and how they can allow these emotions to cloud their judgement about a man who has been nothing if not forthcoming about virtually every aspect of his life.
Even after providing the links for the video and transcript of the speech above, I realize that most if not all of you will not have time to watch and/or read them. That's fine; it's over 37 minutes long and I know not everyone is as interested in politics as myself. It is for those readers that I would like to summarize the speech and give my analysis of it. Full disclosure: I am a dedicated Obama supporter but I try to be as honest and objective when discussing politics as my humanity will allow.
First off, I now do think that the need for this speech was warranted. Of course, many people out there will take the opportunity to cherry pick whatever lines they think will hurt Obama the most and use them against him and his campaign; that is to be expected. These same people have done the same thing with Rev. Wright's words ad nauseum. But the fact remains that the discussion of race was going to enter the debate over the presidency at some point and Obama is smart to address the issue proactively. He knows that while we have worked hard to end race problems in the past that the fight is far from over and that we can't pretend that it isn't.
He spoke tonight first about the Declaration of Independence and how it was left unfinished by our founding fathers, specifically the issue of slavery to be handled by future generations. He spoke about how a proclamation of black emancipation freed the descendants of those slaves but that this piece of paper did not do all that was needed either. And he spoke about how it was only in modern day America that a black man like himself could be running for president of the nation a mere handful of generations after his ancestors were still treated as if they were less than human.
In addressing Rev. Wright, he said that he could have left the church after hearing some of his more inflammatory remarks and that if all he knew of the man were what has been seen on television and Youtube lately, he could see why others would think that he should have. But he defended his friend as a force for good in the church and the community, pointing out his efforts to open low-income housing, providing day care facilities for single mothers and administering counseling to and helping to reform the local prison population. He spoke about how his particular church and it's congregation embody the black community in it's entirety, the good and the bad, and to a larger degree all that makes up black America as a whole. And he compared the views of the Reverend with those of his white grandmother who had admitted personal feelings of discomfort regarding race in the past, thus aligning himself with the feelings of people on both sides of the issue and going on to state that he could no more disown Rev. Wright than he could this woman who had loved and raised him.
He explained how many blacks of Rev. Wright's generation, who came of age in the fifties and sixties, still carry the resentment of their treatment during those years and how those feelings, while not discussed in mixed race situations, do come to the fore in black barber shops, neighborhoods and churches. He compared it to the similar anger in white America over affirmative action and political correctness, over having to watch one's usage of language when discussing any aspect of race for fear of being labeled a racist in these hyper-sensitive times. He said that condemning the anger of whites or blacks over these issues without understanding where each of them comes from just widens the chasm of misunderstanding between the races in America. He recognizes that we may not like that this anger and resentment exist but also that we can't just wish them away either.
He spoke candidly and with humility about how we won't move beyond racism in a single election or with a single candidate and that if we focus solely on the worst aspects of racism today that we will only end up doing the same in the next election and the one after that, thus ensuring that nothing will ever change. He emphasized that we must teach our children about the importance of the conservative ideal of "self-help" coupled with a belief that society can be changed and that the achievement of our dreams does not have to come at the expense of the dreams of others. And at the conclusion, he stated that our Union may not be perfect but that past generations have shown that with hard work and mutual respect, it can be perfected.
I've heard all manner of analyses about this speech running the gamut from "best speech on race, ever, period" to "just a hypocritical ploy to appeal to both whites and blacks in his quest to win the presidency and force a liberal agenda on America". Will his words today sway the thoughts and feelings of the average American on the subject of race relations? Probably not. The average American is too busy with work and family to pay much attention to anything longer than a thirty second soundbite on the evening news, and we mustn't begrudge them that fact. The truth is that most people who were going to vote for or against Obama for racial reasons will probably still do just that. One speech isn't going to change the majority of people's minds about a subject that is so deeply ingrained in our national heritage and culture.
No, the most important truth to come from tonight's speech is not what we as a nation feel or believe about race and how it relates to the presidential contest; what is important is what we have seen and learned about Barack Obama the man. He stood on a stage today, flanked not by dozens of supporters and well-wishers as candidates usually are but all by himself, accompanied only by the American flag. He spoke openly and candidly about a subject that is virtually taboo in American politics, in a way that would be considered certain death for most other campaigns. It probably wasn't a smart move politically; most pundits and talking heads will likely say so. But it was most definitely a courageous statement, delivered in a way that evinced heartfelt sensitivity and utmost respect while at the same time proving a willingness to do and say not just what is needed but also what is right in one of the most difficult moments yet of his candidacy. And it was in that moment that Barack Obama didn't just seem to be a symbol of racial unity for the American people; he seemed presidential.
[Update: Leave it to Jon Stewart to deliver the truest, most concise analysis of the evening:
"And so, at eleven o'clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults."]