As readers of this blog know, I have not been an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, voting for him in the Ohio primary as the default choice since the alternative of Hillary Clinton is much worse in comparison, and John McCain is truly awful.
But I was really impressed by the speech he gave last Tuesday on race, triggered by the ridiculous flap over some words spoken by the former pastor of his church. If you haven’t seen the speech, you can join the three million people who have viewed it on YouTube or read the full transcript.
The speech was quite extraordinary both for the things he did not say and do as well as for the things he said and did. It was a long speech, lasting about forty minutes, but it was not a stem-winder with resounding phrases. There were no jokes, no innuendo, no digs at political opponents. While there was applause from the audience on a few occasions, there were no built-in, cued-up, applause lines, like one sees in campaign speeches or the awful State of the Union addresses. In fact, Obama seemed to prefer no applause at all and seemed to want to just get on with it. There were no rhetorical flourishes, no crescendos, no dramatic modulations, not even very many memorable phrases.
In his understated and low-key speech, Obama used just one rhetorical device, the pause, and he used it extremely well in a way that reminded me of Harold Pinter’s memorable 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech which I have discussed earlier.
Obama quietly delivered a powerful message about the state of race relations in the US and how the way it is currently conducted poisons everything and everyone it touches and of the need to change that situation.
For once we had a major political figure talk like an adult about the serious issue of race. Even more impressive, he seemed to be assuming that the audience also consisted of adults. What made the event so extraordinary, and at the same time reflects so poorly on the state of our political discourse, was that such events are so rare.
He spoke about one issue that I have repeatedly emphasized, how race and other issues are almost always deliberately discussed in inflammatory ways, so that they become distractions from vital issues, and he issued a challenge to the media and to us to change that. He did not take a Pollyannaish view of race or try to disavow the people or history that are integral to dealing with it. Instead he correctly said that we need to know and understand that history if we are ever to overcome it.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
But what was most important in the speech was the indictment of the media about how they cover race and politics and the challenge that he issued to them and us to talk like adults about race, a topic that is at once so ephemeral (after all, the concept of race has no biological standing) and yet so important.
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.
. . .
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.”
We have to look to comedian Jon Stewart who, between the jokes, gives one of the most adult media reactions to the speech.
The reactions to Obama’s speech are interesting. Those who would never have voted for him anyway have been nitpicking it to death but in the process come off looking petty. But he put in a tricky position those who pride themselves on being at least somewhat enlightened. If they continue to harp on Wright’s words, they will be acknowledging that they really don’t want the kind of discussion Obama is calling for but simply want to continue to use race as a divisive tool. Even Fox News’s Chris Wallace was so embarrassed by his colleagues on his own network over their relentless focus on precisely the kind discussion that Obama deplored that he publicly took them to task for it. It seemed like even he had had enough.
We can only hope that this speech will change the way that race is discussed in America.
In the next post, I will say more about the context in which Obama’s speech came to be delivered.
POST SCRIPT: The God Delusion Debate
Case’s Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), in partnership with the Case InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, will present a screening of The God Delusion Debate beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 25 in Strosacker Auditorium. The program features biologist Richard Dawkins, who needs no introduction, debating points from his book The God Delusion with John Lennox, a mathematician, philosopher of science, and a Christian.
You can see just the opening to the debate here. In the interests of time, this 20-minute introduction explaining the debate set up and having the debaters give brief biographies of themselves will not be shown at the event.
At 8:30, immediately, following the screening, there will be refreshments and then a panel discussion.