[Senator Barack Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008 was notworthy. What follows is the commentary and analysis of 10 members of the BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board.]
[Senator Barack Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008 was notworthy. What follows is the commentary and analysis of 10 members of the BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board.]
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Senator Obama offered a brilliant and inspiring address which was, nevertheless, a bit problematic. On the one hand, he spoke to the people of the United States about race in a manner that has only occasionally taken place (such as during the Jesse Jackson campaigns). He spoke as someone from both inside and outside the African American experience and was completely unapologetic about the rage that we feel, as a people, for the injustices that we have suffered over the centuries. Yet Senator Obama, at one and the same time, attributes much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted–and documented–in the current reality of the USA.
Senator Obama’s address offers the vision of hope and change, which are critical for all those engaged in the struggle for social justice. He correctly identifies that this is not the same country that it was 50 or 100 years ago. He also correctly identifies that race still matters in the conditions of African Americans. He also insists that the issues facing African Americans must be joined with the issues facing other oppressed people, including but not limited to white working people, and not reserved for us alone. In that sense he suggests the importance of the links among those who have found themselves under the heal of this system.
For a mainstream politician running for the Presidency, and particularly for an African American running for the Presidency, this was a critical speech to give. It was essential that he not walk away from, or disown Rev. Wright. At the same time, when we live in a society that is so much in denial of the actual conditions of the oppressed both inside and outside our borders; that has come to accept torture; that often cannot comprehend the tragedy facing the Palestinians; that was angry about, yet threw up its hands in the face of the Katrina disaster (and the government’s lack of response); that witnesses major banks and corporations disembowel communities and face few consequences, the anger that was displayed by Rev. Wright should not have surprised anyone. It is both anger AND hope that are critical for a genuine movement that wishes to transform this country. The anger of a Rev. Wright is not a throw-back, but is a reality check.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.]
William L. (Bill) Strickland
My first reaction to the smear campaign against Barack Obama kicked off by Fox News’s guilt-by-association tarring of Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was smugly racial. After all, they had attacked Reverend Wright for being "unpatriotic" and "un-American", but they had not dared to say that what Wright had said was untrue, that America is run by rich white people, that Hillary Clinton didn’t know what it meant to be black and that America was founded on racism. But after reading Obama’s speech, two time-distant recollections triggered another thought about America’s problem which goes far deeper than right-wing race-mongering.
The first recollection was of Jack Nicholson in the movie "A Few Good Men" where prosecuting attorney, Tom Cruise makes a demand saying: "I want the truth!" and Jack thunders back: "You can’t handle the truth!" The second memory was of a question posed in the post WW II era either by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre or the Algerian writer Albert Camus. One of them asked: "Can a system condemn itself?"
That is, I think the real issue: Can America face the truth about itself and its History? Reverend Wright is doubtful and Obama is hopeful, but forty years ago another truth-telling black man, also speaking in a church, called America the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. and he too, like Reverend Wright and Obama, was pilloried for telling the truth about his country.
But if the truth is un-American, one may rightly ask: Can America be changed. Obama hopes so. We shall see…
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Willian L. (Bill) Strickland - Teaches political science in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is also the Director of the Du Bois Papers Collection. The Du Bois Papers are housed at the University of Massachusetts library, which is named in honor of this prominent African American intellectual and Massachusetts native. Professor Strickland is a founding member of the independent black think tank in Atlanta the Institute of the Black World (IBW), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Strickland was a consultant to both series of the prize-winning documentary on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize (PBS Mini Series Boxed Set), and the senior consultant on the PBS documentary, The American Experience: Malcolm X: Make It Plain. He also wrote the companion book Malcolm X: Make It Plain. Most recently, Professor Strickland was a consultant on the Louis Massiah film on W.E.B. Du Bois - W.E.B. Du Bo is: A Biography in Four Voices.]
Justice – It’s in the Details
The speech on race in America that Barack Obama gave in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 was moving and sounded wonderful, as full of hope and the possibility of change as most of his speeches. But it did nothing to unravel the central contradiction of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. That contradiction is rooted in the fact that America has always needed a class of workers who are kept downtrodden and in poverty to make its economy work. That is a fact that has not changed, and none of the remaining presidential candidates are dealing with it.
In the beginning it was slavery that provided that group of second class workers, who toiled away at vital jobs in unspeakably inhumane conditions for no pay at all. Later, when the nation’s hardest, least desirable but still essential jobs were being done by newly arrived immigrants – of all colors – racism still locked most African Americans into virtual slavery even after the institution of slavery was officially ended.
Today the fundamentally inhumane contradiction of the American economy is that it doesn’t need American workers anymore – of any color. Companies move jobs to wherever in the world labor is cheapest – or replace human workers entirely with computerized control systems. A handful of big, privately owned global corporations control the economy and get our country to make policies that support their profits by making lavish campaign contributions to both the Democrats and the Republicans.
As a result America, like much of the world, faces a growing polarization of wealth and poverty. In that reality of harsh global capitalism, the new racism is poverty. A new class of dispossessed is growing in America, people of all colors pushed out of the opportunities for good educations, good jobs, good health, good housing. We are becoming more of a police state as this impoverished low-wage and no-wage class is seen as potentially explosive and must be held in check.
As poverty has spread to broader and broader sections of our society, there has been a steady push to put in place a system of laws to contain not African Americans, but the impoverished. Managing and controlling the new class of dispossessed is the new paradigm of policing and incarceration. The main agenda for global corporations is to continue to automate production, eliminate jobs, lower wages and cut benefits, so poverty and homelessness will continue to grow. This has already made our nation the world’s leading prison nation. This travesty is driven by the market economy and global capitalism more than racism.
Mr. Obama’s address failed to address any of this, just as his campaign speeches fail to address it. But his former pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was trying to raise some of these issues as he advised his congregation not to get so lost in their "middleclassness" that they failed to reach out to those in poverty. Mr. Obama said, "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; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change."
And America certainly has changed, in that it has allowed a certain number of African Americans, like our present secretary of state, and our former secretary of state, and Mr. Obama, among others, to join the privileged class. But the profound mistake of Mr. Obama’s speeches is that he speaks as if our economic system isn’t static in its irrepressible need to push a high proportion of its people to the economic bottom, where they can be exploited cheaply for whatever contributions they can make, and pushed out of the economic system entirely – discarded, thrown away – if they cannot be exploited further.
While it is clear that a disproportionate number of African Americans are tortured by inadequate health care; poor housing, inadequate educations, abusive criminal justice, unemployment and high crime, much of this today is because they live in poverty. And in the global capitalism of today these conditions now exist for countless numbers of other Americans, white, Asian, Latino and others.
In Mr. Obama’s Democratic Party, the last two candidates standing represent the longings of historically oppressed groups. Early in the election season both major political parties faced a decline in interest in politics. Both desperately needed new faces in order to enthuse new voters and siphon off some of the discontent with the increasingly corporate direction of our country. Many workers believe that the Democratic Party is going to protect them from escalating job loss and home loss, growing denial of health care and escalating poverty. Nothing Mr. Obama has said so far indicates that he has a program to do that.
Mr. Obama’s speech on race discussed at length the personal impact of historical racism. American workers, whether employed or unemployed, don’t have an organization to protect them from the personal impact of being pushed toward poverty by corporate actions and national economic policy. The major political parties have shown that their main interest is in following the money, and in staying away from where the money isn’t. The new class of poor and working people desperately need an independent politics dedicated to improving their lives. For instance the vast productive power of this largely automated economy could end poverty and homelessness tomorrow, if only the "we the people" controlled it. But that of course would not serve the upper class agenda he now represents. While he was once a community organizer in poor neighborhoods, powerful forces have rallied around him as a presidential candidate.
Besides the unprecedented millions that both the Democratic Candidates have garnered in this election plenty have documented who are the global leaders that serve as part of Obama’s top advisors and they include, Zbigniew Brzezinsk, Dennis Ross who advised Clinton and both Bushes, Anthony Lake, a big proponent and supporter of World Bank and IMF roles as well as generals. We can conclude that while major party politicians can talk about change, they are not likely to fight for the kinds of changes that would really end poverty. To do that, we the people must organize with new ideas and a new vision of justice. In the face of the growing encroachment on rights and democracy we, the people must gain the political power to direct society’s resources so we can end the problems of poverty, national & women’s oppression, and this outrageous war. A new society is not only possible, but necessary.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Ethel Long- Scott - Executive Director of the Women's Economic Agenda Project, (WEAP). She is known nationally and internationally for devoting her life to the education and leadership of people at the losing end of society, especially women of color. She is dedicated to economic security and justice and believes that the US is engaged in a relentless war against workers and the poor.]
I welcome Obama’s principled and eloquent response to the "Rev. Wright" controversy. This provided an unprecedented teaching moment for the country, an opportunity for him to address directly the issues of racism in the American polity, and, more subtley, the polarizing tactics of the corporate media. While I do not share his opinion that Rev. Wright’s views are "distorted", I think he handled the question of their relationship – and by extension his relationship with the Black community – with integrity. It is unfortunate that, as Blackness is apparently equated with lack of patriotism, he felt it necessary to reaffirm his commitment to the fight against "radical Islam." On the whole, however, it was a brilliant exercise of statesmanship.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Jeanne Woods, JD - Visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Law from the College of Law at Loyola University, New Orleans.]
Obama’s speech was timely, to say the least. I see it as a defining moment for Obama as a candidate, where he had to ‘come clean’ regarding race in U.S. society. It elevates his statesmanship above the other candidates. Whether or not this makes him more electable…well, we shall see.
He raised the issue about the ‘elephant in the room’ that the mainstream media has not really raised, except in silly, ahistorical, and ultimately, meaningless ways. His speech is important on several fronts. First, it shows a candidate (finally….)who is not afraid to talk about race – and class – in U.S. society in an open, and substantive, way.
The speech is important (and historical) because it helps to neutralize right wing propaganda aimed at exploiting race as a divisive mechanism to obfuscate discussions about class issues in U.S. society. And, the speech is also important because it challenges right wing media and its propaganda machine in utilizing its definition of ‘patriotism’ as a litmus test for support.
If patriotism does not allow communication and debate about the various racial and ethnic experiences in this nation, then it is an incomplete patriotism. After this speech, patriotism should be viewed as a space for debate about racial, class, and historical issues, rather than simplistically, a space to pledge blind allegiance to a preconceived notion of America, – no questions asked… The limitation of the speech is that class issues are raised as important, but little discourse about how we can discuss such, within a context of the nation’s racial history, and racial alienation among many in this society. Alas, raising this issue as national, indeed international, may be the first step in responding to the latter.
If this nation is true to its values, then this one speech should move us forward in talking with, and mobilizing, each other. Of course, talk is always cheap…from talk, we need to move towards substantive programs and policies that ensure that every person in U.S. society can have access to, and enjoy, a decent standard of living for him/her, and his/her family, as well as the neighbors in our neighborhood, and other neighborhoods.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member James Jennings, PhD - Professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.]
Lenore J. Daniels
Will the Republican candidate John McCain have to deliver a speech of explanation and apology for the endorsement he sought from Rev. John Hegee, who has made a career denouncing certain groups of Americans?
Would Sen. Obama have had to distance himself from his pastor of 20 years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright if he were not an African American running for the presidency?
Rev. Wright’s views have not "denigrated both the greatness and goodness of our nation." Look at the U.S. domestic and foreign policies of the last 40 years. These policies have not benefited the masses of Black, Brown, Red, and poor whites nor have they benefited the Caribbean, Latin American, African, and Middle-Eastern nations.
If all of our stories are to be heard, then Rev. Wright’s story needs hearing too. Racism is "endemic" in this country. It rests at the foundation of this nation. Ask the Native Americans!
What of Black Americans who have asked for reparations and have been mocked. What of the "incendiary" language and "distorted" Americans hold toward other nations of color – other nations with material resources that Americans feel it is their right to take? I am afraid that any of us who speak on these issues will be equally vilified and silenced (as we have been the last forty years).
If we speak on the issues of gentrification, poverty, failed schools, and out sourced jobs. Would Rev. Martin Luther King have to apologize for his "Beyond Vietnam," Riverside speech if he were alive today?
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD - A writer, for over thirty years, of commentary, resistance criticism and cultural theory, and short stories with a Marxist sensibility to the impact of cultural narrative violence and its antithesis, resistance narratives. With entrenched dedication to justice and equality, she has served as a coordinator of student and community resistance projects that encourage the Black Feminist idea of an equalitarian community and facilitator of student- teacher communities behind the walls of academia for the last twenty years. Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literatures, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago.]
David A. Love
Obama Spoke The Truth
In his Philadelphia address, Senator Barack Obama spoke the truth. And he has taken us where no major political figure has dared to take us in decades. Obama had a clear choice: either respond to the attacks against him, out of cold political cynicism, desperation and blind ambition – and throw his pastor and mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright off the cliff (not to mention the African American community, in the process) – or speak from the heart and make it plain. He chose the latter.
And he provided what this campaign season had been lacking – a sense of context on the issue of race. Members of the conservative punditoracy, the talking heads who are dependent upon the 24-hour news cycle, the 30-second sound byte and the sensationalism of reality-show faux-journalism, never have visited a Black church. Rather than sensitize themselves to the inconvenient realities of racism, they, in their discomfort and false outrage, demanded Dr. Wright’s head on a platter. The senator refused to participate in the Willie Hortonization of Rev. Wright, or the demonization of a rich legacy of political expression in the Black church.
But more importantly, Obama redirected the current discussion away from the unhelpful distractions, the scapegoating and the smokescreens, and towards the larger fundamentals of inequality and power in America. He addressed the legacy of oppression that people of color face, and the economic deprivation that many whites experience, all against the backdrop of corporate greed and a devotion to business as usual among the political elites. This is just the beginning of a conversation that is needed in this country. Obama is challenging the people to take advantage of a window of opportunity, and to try a refreshingly new and different approach to this American experiment.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member David A. Love - A lawyer and prisoners' rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and In These Times. Additionally, he contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love, a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.]
Most black folks are attracted to – even if superficially – anyone who speaks truth to power, who can "tell the truth and shame the devil." I have yet to find a black person to wholly condemn the sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Our lives, our voices are muted or silenced every day in so many ways. Even our joys and successes are eclipsed by louder voices and more powerful images that propel the perceived worst of a people into the public domain. This often results in our blanket condemnation of one another without looking at the historical roots of our oppression. Or working harder to prove we are worthy of being US citizens and the rights that come with such a privilege originally conceived only for white men.
The presidential race has become a metaphor for race relations in this country: women (Hillary Clinton) and people of color (Barack Obama) duking it out while white men (John McCain) continuing their game plan. The issues I want to hear about are still going on with no response from the presidential candidates. I want to know about my $30 billion given to bail out Bear Stearns. I want to know about my $500 billions being pumped into the illegal Iraqi War. I want to know when I’m gonna get affordable health care. I want to know…
I’m still waiting for wholesale public condemnations of pedophile Catholic priests, of racist segregationists like Strom Thurmond, of US policy to prop up South Africa’s P. W. Botha and apartheid, of drug head Rush Limbaugh, of drugs and guns runner Ollie North, of co- conspirator burglar Richard Nixon, and on and on. White men’s actions, which have destroyed lives both literally and figuratively, can also guarantee them a coveted place in history.
Dr. Rev. Floyd Flake likened Obama’s speech on race to Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous "I have a dream" speech. Its eloquence and insights are undeniable even if it failed to tackle the role of profit as a motivating reason for the ruling class to maintain racial divisions. The question that remains is whether Obama’s goal of opening up space for substantive dialogue about race will end up in America’s graveyard of missed opportunities.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Jamala Rogers - Leader of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black Radical Congress National Organizer.]
When I first heard of the criticisms of Pastor Wright and the pressure on Obama to denounce Wright, I was angry…Angry at the subconscious (and from some, very conscious) attack on Black America…Angry that yet another Black man in the public eye would be forced to don "the Mask" and deny the legitimacy of his community in order to placate the mainstream. Obama’s speech was masterful…not perfect, but masterful. He stood his ground and defended the Black community’s sensibilities in ways which have rarely been done by mainstream politicians. But he went beyond that and empathized with the white working class, rooted their anger in their insecurity, and placed blame for racial divisions on cynical politicians and media.
But the power of a speech lies not its words nor its deliverer. The power of a speech lies in the strength of the movement that inspires the speech and is inspired by the speech. Without such a movement, the spoken words are like the sound of a tree falling in a forest when no one is around. The challenge for Black progressives (and all progressives) has been to use this moment and the incredible energy unleashed by the Obama candidacy to build a movement for social change that will make a lasting mark on U.S. society.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Steven Pitts, PhD - Labor Policy Specialist at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.]
A friend wrote to me right after the speech: "What if we actually end up with a president who is capable of drawing lessons from history and conveying them to the nation he leads?" In that sense Barack Obama’s address was unprecedented; as a document is will be studied and debated long after this election is over, regardless of who ends up in the White House.
One does not have to agree with everything he said – or have his world outlook – to recognize that the oration is a thoughtful, eloquent and perceptive exploration of the subject of race in U.S. society today. It is an expression of his faith and a plea against the cynicism and divisiveness that has become so ingrained in the nation’s politics.
I am not a member of his political party and no not share its positions on many critical issues facing us but I would be more than surprised and pleased if the other prominent politicians exhibited such responsible thinking and understanding.
There are some gaps in the content of the speech and a couple of unfortunate formulations. However, I am certain that many people, across the racial spectrum, will be moved and encouraged by his social optimism, especially among the younger generations. And if the young man’s outlook furthers a wide and meaningful discussion of the issues it will be all to the good.
We face a serious crisis in this country. One can only hope that in the coming months the political campaigns take up seriously the problems weighing down on the insecure and the angry, the people who are being left out and victimized that Obama describes and speak out forthrightly in their interest and against those who seek power through foreign and domestic policies that serve only to secure wealth and privilege. That is my hope.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Carl Bloice - A writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.]
My response to Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008, so-called "Race Speech" is best summed up in the statement by former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (‘A Discussion Of Race Worth Having’). It addresses the root causes and systemic nature of racism in the United States. Cynthia McKinney, as a well honed and highly experienced Black American woman from the deep south who was born and raised in this nation, is eminently qualified to address this matter from and at its very core. Specifically with regard to the Obama speech, McKinney said the following:
I am glad that candidate Obama mentioned the existing racial disparities in education, income, wealth, jobs, government services, imprisonment, and opportunity. Now it is time to address the public policies necessary to resolve these disparities. Now it is time to have the discussion on how we are going to come together and put policies in effect that will provide real hope and real opportunity to all in this country. To narrow the gap between the ideals of our founding fathers and the realities faced by too many in our country today: That must be the role of public policy at this critical moment in our country today. I welcome a real discussion of race in this country and a resolve to end the long-standing disparities that continue to spoil the greatness of our country.
I welcome a real discussion of all the issues that face our country today and the real public policy options that exist to resolve them. That must be the measure of this campaign season. For many voters, this important discussion has been too vague or completely non- existent. Now is the time to talk about the concrete measures that will move our country forward: on race, war, climate change, the economy, health care, and education. Our votes and our political engagement must be about ensuring that fairness truly for all is embodied in "liberty and justice for all."
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Larry Pinkney - A veteran of the Black Panther Party, the former Minister of Interior of the Republic of New Africa, a former political prisoner and the only American to have successfully self-authored his civil/political rights case to the United Nations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For more about Larry Pinkney see the book, Saying No to Power: Autobiography of a 20th Century Activist and Thinker by William Mandel [Introduction by Howard Zinn]. (Click here to read excerpts from the book) <http://www.struggle-and-win.net/13201/43480.html>]
Barack Obama’s speech was both masterful and courageous. It had the potential to open up the "Conversation on Race" that never happened during the Clinton administration. Acknowledging the elephant in the room – that the US state was built on the enslaved labor of Africans and African Americans – Obama anchored the conversation to the promise, not the reality, of the U.S. Constitution, framing his political campaign within the context of the broader struggle to realize democratic values. Though there were limitations, particularly noteworthy was Obama’s skillful weaving of issues of race and class.
Understanding that race is a relationship of power and privilege, Obama asserted that racial scapegoating is predicated on a zero sum game; that buying into whiteness has prevented white Americans from dealing with such critical issues such as the need for universal health care and the precipitously increasing disparities in wealth, in which the top one percent owns a greater net wealth than the bottom 90 percent of all households.
He correctly framed white supremacy and racism not as static, but as dynamic and changing over time. However, this did not happen on its own, but was a result of a long freedom struggle waged by millions of African Americans, including Jeremiah Wright. Obama should have been explicit about those difficult struggles deep in our historical memories: the lynchings, burnings, fire hoses and police dogs.
The speech was courageous because, within the limitations of U.S. electoral politics, Obama made the uncommon decision to say what he thinks, to speak truth to power and to let the chips fall where they may. But will white America hear? The right wing is desperately looking for anything to trash this historic speech. The measure of Obama’s success will be determined by his ability to create, build and galvanize a grassroots mass movement that links anti-racism to the practical tasks of governing. Such a movement will have to bypass the media, pundits, and politicians who manufacture consent that prevents the majority of Euro-Americans from acting in their own interests.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Leith Mullings, PhD - Presidential professor of anthropology and Director of the program in medical anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.]
As I watched the excerpts of Senator Barack Obama’s "Speech on Race" on the PBS Television’s "News Hour" during early evening March 18, 2008, my first thought was that perhaps only an African American historic leadership personality could make such a speech. African American historic leadership figures such as Frederick Douglass, AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Rev. Martin Luther King, and Fanny Lou Hammer. Why did I think this? Because Obama’s "Speech on Race" was a tale of America’s most unique moral conundrum.
The moral-conundrum of a hopeful and buoyant 18th century experiment in democracy that simultaneously strangled itself, as it were. Strangled itself via the enslavement of Black people , on the one hand, and via the post-Civil War era century-long denial of equal- rights to Black people, on the other hand.
In some deep existential sense, then, only an African- American historic leadership personality could relate this awful tale. And relate it above all in the mode of Christian social-gospel humanism, the finest feature of Christian tradition that also defined other African- American historic leadership personalities like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Rev. Martin Luther King. A political leadership discourse-mode that does not seek to condemn per se, and does not seek cheap everyday American oneupmanship political-edge purposes.
Rather, Obama’s "Speech on Race" related the tale of America’s unique moral conundrum so as to carry all Americans’ spirits and vision (White, Black, Latino, Native American, Asian, Arab American, etc.) on to a higher, superior level of national and human possibilities. A level of national and human possibilities that, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, will enable us Americans to flush-out the corporatist-greed riddled, industrial-military complex driven, and corrupt political-oligarchy features thwarting our democracy here in 21st century American life.
This, then, is what made Obama’s "Speech on Race" an awe-inspiring American event. The speech was a masterwork thanks to its moral candor, at the center of which was and-had-to-be Obama’s condemnation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s error in letting his activist- Christian discourse (liberation theology) run wild on certain occasions, not tempering it with a greater humanist-Christian ethos.
At the same time, Obama faced the deep moral and systemic rawness of our country’s racial legacy, what he called "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." He continued thus: "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."
At this point Obama turned pithily to the words of William Faulkner: "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." Then, with incredible oratorical savvy, Obama says both that "We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country" and informing America’s citizenry today how past-and-present intertwine still, here in the 21st century, shaping what we are and thereby telling us where we must still travel. As he put it:
…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. Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed then, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property…- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities. …This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.
What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
As I said above, Obama’s "Speech on Race" was a masterwork of American leadership discourse. It relates the tale of America’s unique moral conundrum, elevating all Americans’ spirits and vision on to a higher level of national and human possibilities. I daresay that nothing associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign can give us such an awesome event and experience as Barack Obama’s "Speech on Race" – a quintessential American literary text that it will surely be recognized as, along with Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March-on-Washington address.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Martin Kilson, PhD - Was appointed in 1962 as the first African American to teach in Harvard College and in 1969 he was the first African American tenured at Harvard. He retired in 2003 as Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Emeritus. His publications include: Political Change in a West African State (Harvard University Press, 1966); Key Issues in the Afro- American Experience (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970); New States in the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 1975); The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays (Harvard University Press, 1976); The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African American Intelligentsia (Forthcoming. University of MIssouri Press); and The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1900-2008 (Forthcoming).]
The Obama speech is in a word, powerful! Obama skillfully tackles what is in many ways a "third rail" issue in U.S. politics – race. In a country that a few short years ago walked out of the U.N. Summit on racism, and later failed miserably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it seemed like race and justice were too far from the mainstream discourse to be addressed openly and honestly. Like the high power third rail in the railway track, politicians and co-workers alike feared the consequences of touching issues of race. Obama’s speech changes all that. He elevates this pivotal issue at a critical moment. Obama gives a striking call to action, encouraging this generation to do its part – "on the streets and in the courts" to "narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time." Regardless of who wins in November, Obama’s speech forces people in red State, blue States, and countries around the world to critical examine personal, systemic, and deeply entrenched racism and commit themselves to live the change we all can believe in.
Obama actually did a one-two punch in powerful speeches this week. Tuesday’s speech on race was followed the next day by Obama’s most comprehensive speech on foreign policy to date.
Wednesday’s speech, on the 5th anniversary of the Iraq war, not only clearly laid out a plan for getting troops out of Iraq, but focused on the need for decreasing militarism and increasing diplomacy and development around the world. Obama also made a clear call for the end to nuclear proliferation, distinguishing himself from the other candidates.
Taken together, these speeches give great insight into the vision and values of a possible Obama presidency. The real test, however, will be the power of a newly energized movement of new, young, and more progressive voters to demand that Obama’s powerful rhetoric is translated into actual policies that can bring the better world we all believe in.
[BlackCommentator Editorial Board Member Emira Woods - Co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies (Woods is from Liberia and brings an international viewpoint).]