Wednesday, March 19, 2008

To see past race, you must first look it in the eye

It’s very rare that I read a political speech and then decide that I have to watch it delivered as well. But this one, flawed though it is (show me a speech that isn’t), is really something. The immediate background is that Barack Obama’s former pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had made some inflammatory remarks. Yesterday Obama said:

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. … The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

The close of that first sentence – coming from a serious presidential candidate – made my eyes widen. He went on:

I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

And occasionally [black anger at disadvantage] 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. …
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

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.

[Update: The Onion reports 'Black Guy Asks Nation For Change'.]


Cassilis said...

I was equally impressed - and did the same 'read then go see' thing you did.

The most remarkable thing about it for me was the bravery. I'd imagine the electoral playbook for dealing with a story like this would be a swift denunciation and then move on, some other speech that tries to change the news cycle.

But he grabbed the issue with both hands and talked to it for 20mins across all the major networks, para after para specifically referencing Wright and explicitly refusing to denounce the man. And remarkably it seems to have worked - even US critics are saying he's probably done enough to neutralise the issue at the same time as delivering a barnstorming speech.

Rouses the spirit of those of us who despair at how predictable and anodyne most campaigns are - there's merit in honesty after all.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah. It's a pity that - as far as I can see - most of the coverage of it has focused on Wright, when it has so much wider significance.

A tremendous speech does not a good president - nor even necessarily a good candidate - make, but by god, this was a real political event.

m said...

Thanks for the Onion link.

I tend to agree with Michael Crowley’s take on this speech.

Chris said...

Mmmm. I'm more with the views of Michael Myers. It may have been nuanced for a politican, but that's judging by a pretty low standard.

He really is the West Wing candidate though, isn't he. I almost heard the soaring Waldenesque strings.

Matt M said...

I was so inspired by Obama's speech that I ended up ordering season 7 of the West Wing from Amazon.

Tom Freeman said...

You won't regret it Matt. I was worried that a focus away from Bartlet and the White House wouldn't be so good, but it's still great stuff.

There's actually a Santos race speech after a Latino cop kills an unarmed black kid. Couldn't help but think of that for some reason...

Matt M said...

I can't wait.

I drifted away from The West Wing during the 4th year but ended up catching the end of the 6th (where Santos is nominated) and then found myself sucked back in for the Santos/Vinick content.

If the US ends up with an Obama/McCain battle then the parallels would be pretty good.

m said...

Ahh, Chris thanks for that. He makes some good points without bringing in the ridiculous, “He threw his grandmother under a bus” argument. (Sorry, I’m already tired of hearing that)

Personally, I think it was a good speech but I wouldn’t put it on par with Lincoln or MLK. I guess I’m out of touch because I thought most of the topics he covered in his speech were self-evident. I would have liked to hear more on cultural diversity in general, it is something other countries are struggling with themselves and it can easily tie into a couple real political issues in this race. Of course, that would go against the reason the speech even came about, so I can’t fault him for that.

I think the speech can be judged quite differently depending on what cap one wishes to put on.

Hope your order from Amazon comes in time for you to enjoy it over Easter, Matt.