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Barack Obama’s speech on race

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.

For more information about the program and CFA, see here.

Comments

  1. Paul V says

    r

    I respect your feelings, Obama is a Stand up guy,,but he losing American right and left,
    When he made it a point to go on every news media and say he NEVER Heard REV Jeremiha Wright, say those things,,, then a week Later,,,He make his speech and flat out says Yes He was in church when he made those Remarks right there and then ,, Barack Obama is just a politician who just trying to get Elected,,, He Lied to all American,,, A lot of American including including Republican,, if Obama made it about Race,,, the black Community Will lose the Race,,My self, being a Mexican American, I would love to see, A black President Barack Obama is not him anymore,,, He has No integrity,,, and already lied Live on TV,,,Obama want everyone to look Beyond Race,,, Thats where he loses people,,,He telling All American,,, Look beyond Race while he hold a double standard, when it comes to Race,,,All America See’s that,, Like I said again and again,,almost 6 month ago When Don Imus said those things about the womens basketball Team,,Barack Obama said he should get fired,, Honestly I felt he should get fired,,,
    but Jeremiah Wright we seen what he said about America and what He said about Hilary clinton personally He was way out of line,,, those comment are 1000 time worst than Don Imus,,, Obama refuse to Denounce him out right,,, then he tells every lets get beyond Race,,Barack has a double standard,,, just like Jesse Jackson & Al sharpton,,,
    No American should be doing any kind of Remark like that,,, And I agree but when a black man does it and its happening more and more,, and In Jeremiah Wright, way worst,
    there an excusee over excuses,
    In other words,,, Barack Obama speech is saying “All White Americans Look Beyond Race”
    While all black American live by there Double standard,,
    Until Obama comes out clean, The Democratic party will remain split… I am in charge of over 100,000 blog pages that getting the word out against Barack Obama,, I monitor personally over 500,000 Negitive blogs on Hilary,,,geting the fact out,,,,If Barack Obama Really want Change,,,Then he going to Have to Start with him self,,,,

  2. says

    Paul, could you cite a source or two? I don’t keep up heavily in politics (and I’m not registered for any party), but I haven’t seen Obama outright deny knowing/hearing Wright’s controversial remarks.

    In fact, in the speech here, I think he makes it extremely clear that he accepts Wright for who he is — both pros and cons — just as he accepts the benefits and drawbacks of the black community.

    I agree with Mano. Whereas many politicians would sever ties with even their closest confidants, Obama stands up to SIMULTANEOUSLY A) acknowledge what he has learned from Wright about social injustice and poverty, and B) condemn Wright’s sermons that fuel stereotypes and racial divides. That act seems to me to require an honesty and maturity that even deep ad-hominem attacks can’t counter.

    Denouncing Wright entirely, as you seem to endorse, sounds painfully shallow by comparison.

  3. bob says

    @Brock

    check out the youtube video at:

    just after 45 second Obama says he never heard those comments.

    the text of Obama’s speech does not say he heard the comments that started the firestorm –
    but it does say he heard ‘controversial’ comments.

    one wonders how many times Obama sat in the pew while similar sermons were given that were
    not recorded.

    that being said, something far more interesting is how different Obama and his pastor are
    in speaking style and presentation. why is it that Obama and his mentor are so different?
    after all, it was a sermon by his mentor titled, ‘the audacity of hope’ that motivated
    Obama to write his book.

    perhaps Obama’s own words give us insight. in his book Obama says he learned a “tactic” to
    being accepted by the white community. that tactic? being non-threatening. (page 94 or 95
    if I remember correctly)

    i wonder if Obama is really the quiet and gentle spoken person he presents or is he like
    his mentor only with a better tactic. maybe hellfire and brimstone works in the pulpit and
    non-threatening works on the campaign trail. but underneath is it all the same?

  4. says

    Thanks for the link, bob!

    The tactic of “being non-threatening” is good advice for acceptance in just about any community. I’m not sure how that’s controversial.

    And unfortunately the video still doesn’t quite connect the dots for me. A few reasonable possibilities: A) Obama genuinely wasn’t in the pew for the “incendiary language”, but rather found out from friends/advisors later (it would be hard for him to miss lately), B) Wright made some mildly divisive comments, but has recently “upped the ante” to gain his own media exposure in the wake of the Obama candidacy, or C) Wright made very controversial remarks all along, but Obama consciously dismissed the negative and accepted the positive of the sermons.

    An option “D” where Obama parrots 100% of Wright’s statements seems outlandish given the video you link, and a large portion of the 40-min video Mano embedded. Human relations aren’t “black & white”: e.g. dorm life, fraternity life, and work life have forced me to accept a lot of friends who undoubtedly care, but hold views that I’ll likely never endorse. Surely you can relate.

    So when Obama compares Wright to a family member with his own will and agenda, sure he’s oversimplifying their particular dynamic — but not remotely oversimplifying to the degree that he would if he shouted “Wright is 100% correct!” or “Wright is 100% crazy!”.

  5. says

    Almost forgot: I haven’t seen the “similarities in speaking and presentation”. Got another link? ;)

    This involves sterotypes, but I do (anecdotally) agree with with Barak’s observations on different generations. Men from the Vietnam era seem to fit two types: A) Peaceful but politically withdrawn, such as my dad or one of my favorite professors, or B) Loud and pushy (though well-meaning), like one of my former bosses or Reverend Wright here.

    Again, those are stereotypes, but they make sense as coping responses to the atrocities of ‘Nam (some of which Mano detailed on the 20th). Anger over the mismanagement of the war or the lives destroyed can either be turned inward, out of fear of hurting others, or expressed outward, in the hopes that such events never arise again. What I’ve briefly seen of Wright seems to fit the second mold.

  6. DOUG FINNEY says

    JUST WANTED TO KNOW BESIDES MYSELF IF ANYONE HAS EVER HEARD OBAMA ANSWER ANY QUESTION WHEN ASKED. I HAVE WATCHED YOUR SHOW AND OTHERS. EVER SENSE THIS RACE STARTED. AND I HAVE NEVER HEARD HIM ANSWER ANYTHING. HE ALWAYS STARTS TALKING ABOUT THE SUBJECT THEN SOMEHOW SIDETRACKS THE QUESTION BY BRINGING UP OTHER FACTS AND STATEMENTS ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE. JUST CAN NOT BELIEVE HE HAS SO MUCH SUPPORT. HE IS ABOUT NOTHING. PLEASE GET HIM TO ANSWER A QUESTION, BECAUSE I BELIEVE THIS SHOW IS THE FAIREST SHOW THERE IS. IT WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU ADDRESSED THIS SUBJECT PEOPLE WILL RESPOND. BECAUSE I’M SURE NO ONE ELSE HAS EVER HEARD HIM ANSWER A QUESTION IN FULL WITH DETAILS. THANK YOU

  7. peter lafond says

    I do not wish to be purile, but perhaps the response to offended Americans should just be “get over it.”

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