Obama delivers sweeping speech on race in America

Barack Obama's presidential fate might very well have been decided today, when the Illinois Senator delivered a sweeping speech on the state of racial relations in America. But whether the speech will allow him to emerge as the candidate of racial unity or whether it will force Obama in a narrative that will hurt him in the coming months will be decided by the reactions of swing voters (and first and foremost of downscale whites).

The speech was stunning on many counts. For one, Obama appears to have decided to give it by himself and have written it entirely by himself over the past two nights; this is not something we are used to in modern politics. Second, Obama constructed a speech whose reasoning progressed almost dialectically to the extent that reading only one part of the speech gives a flawed sense of what Obama is getting at. The impossibility of reducing his argument to a few catch phrases is both the strength and the risk of speech: Obama was able to capture nuances that political speeches rarely attempt but he also opened himself to being much more easily misconstrued.

The speech's explicit purpose was to address the Wright controversy, as the Senator felt evidently felt that he had not done so well enough at the end of last week. Obama thus vigorously rejected Wright's controversial comments, rejected "a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." He then acknowledged that he has been present when Wright made some comments he found reprehensible (something he had denied last week). But he refused to condemn Wright: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother – a woman who... on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Without going in the details of the speech (which has been recaped most everywhere by now; you should particularly check out Jonathan Cohn's insightful analysis over at TNR), Obama then launched into an elaborate exploration of both black and white racial anger. And while a lot of what he said might appear evident to some -- a condensed version of Af-Am studies 101, in a way -- it is rare to have a politician seek to explain such a nuanced perspective.

On the one hand, Obama explained why many agree with Wright's statements, as he summarized the inequalities from which the black community sufferers. He pointed to still-segregated schools as an example of the country's racialized structures: "Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education." On the other hand, he addressed the way in which the white middle-class has historically confronted descriptions of America's structural inequalities and refused to dismiss the resentment as condemnable racism:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. ... In an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. ... To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

In essence, Obama is recognizing the validity of both the structural and the non-structural perspective. He is saying that neither can be dismissed without the country's racial discourse finding itself polarized and everyone feeling marginalized. Whatever the merits of Obama's argument (and many will criticize that that its nuances are too compromising to one side or another, depending on who is voicing the criticism), we have to admit that this speech fits perfectly in the narrative of unity Obama thinks he embodies. And he drove that point home, by extending his argument on race to an indictement of America's political discourse:

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 McCainin the general election regardless of his policies.

I have never been convinced that the expression "post-racial" has any signification whatsoever, but Obama's speech today gave it a meaning perfectly suited to his candidacy. "Post racial" should not mean that we are able to leave racial concerns behind and that we have grown out of them, as some seem to think the redemptive myth of post-raciality means. It is precisely because race, racial inequalities, and non-condemnable race-fueled resentment still structures American society that the country has an obligation to transcend racial thinking and think of ways of bridging the gap, for example by fighting for health care, an issue common to downscale Americans of all races.

However, Obama's tendency to present himself as the embodiment of grand American narratives was also on display today. And if Obama is the American story -- and thus the promise of a more racially harmonious America -- it reestablishes the first definition of post-raciality, that of the possibility of racial structures fading away with the inexorable march of progress.

Ultimately, Obama took a huge risk: What carries the speech is his search for a nuance that he thinks has escaped American politics over the past 50 years, a nuance that has created racial tensions and out of which he believes he can lead the country. This cannot be gathered from a quick summary which will have to emphasize one aspect or another of the speech, losing Obama's insistence to explore racial relations in many directions at once.

Whether Obama helped himself will be determined by swing voters (and downscale whites) in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio; they will not read the entire speech nor watch the entire video. And they could very easily feel that they are being lectured to, especially if some parts of the speech are emphasized more than others. TNR's Michael Crowley worries that this might be unavoidable, and explains that the most important audience could have a very different reaction than the media and political elites that reacted to the speech today.

We won't know for a while what today's impact will be on the campaign, but we can be sure that, whatever happens, people will look back to this speech for some explanation.


  • Wright shows that Clinton is right and there's still a lot we don't know about Obama and that will come out before November.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 18 March, 2008 23:31  

  • Barack did what he thought was the right thing to say and do. He is willing to let the chips fall where they may. This very smart man's life will go on whether he wins the nomination or not.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 19 March, 2008 00:21  

  • don't you just love how obama not once but twice, tried to equate the rhetoric of a man who has claimed the america created the AIDS virus, with the comments by geraldine ferraro that she herself would not have been a vice-presidential candidate if she were not female, and that the white press has not vetted obama to the usual degree, because he is black? you can disagree with her statements, but they are not racist demagoguery. yet in obama's speech, they were not one time, but twice, magically offered as examples of white invective supposedly equal to that of reverent wright.....jesse jackson has now echoed this in his glowing praise of the obama speech. cynical laughter is the only response i can think of to this bit of rhetorical okey-doke.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 02:39  

  • Obama deserves praise for trying to move the country in a better, more enlightened way. Instead of going for cheap shots or running for political cover he tackles a hard subject head on. How is that for someone alledgely lacking substance??

    I want the next President of the USA to be intelligent and recognise that life isn't black and white as some would want it but that there are multiples shades of grey. Acknowleging this basic fact would allow us to try and pragmatically solve the many issues our country faces.

    Whether you support Obama or Clinton I think people should accept that Obama did the right and bold thing yesterday.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 07:55  

  • The speech was good but it may not appeal to downscale, under educated Clinton supporters in the mid-west. This is unfortunate but prejudice takes a while to go away.
    PA is just one of 10 primaries coming up in the next few months. OR, NC and IN are still major races to follow.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 07:57  

  • Following on from his thoughtful and intelligent speech on race Obama moves onto Iraq and military policy. Timely since today is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the war has lasted longer than World War 2 (from the US entry that is). I notice that the CW a few months ago was Obama lacked substance - that is not a comment made now.

    Regarding scandals there have been 2 - Rezko and Wright. Whether they are real or manufactured is upto peoples judgement. Clinton has had many more scandals and I would agree most are minor or manufactured but she (and Bill) have had many more so she would be an easier target come November. Obama has been pretty well "vetted" by now.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 08:00  

  • I'm a black female Captain in the U.S. Army. I have served for over 20 years and I love my country...I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the world.

    Obama and his links to Rev. Wright/Rezco is bad judgement....and blacks need to own up to it and STOP making excuses for Obama & Wright.

    Before this story broke, I spoke to my 14 & 12 year old daughters about not hanging around those who have a bad reputation or continuously do negative things, because others will believe they are the same way....Obama should have had the intelligence to also know this by now! Wright should NEVER use the pulpit to voice political rhetoric...regardless if they are true or not. The pulpit is ONLY for God's word.

    I distastefully saw people...mostly young....crying, worshipping, and idolizing Obama at his rallies...calling him the Messiah. In my gut I saw trouble coming because of this. The ONLY Messiah is Jesus Christ. When Obama didn't ask these young people to tone it down, and when he himself rellished from being in the spotlight....he lost my vote. NO ONE puts him/herself on a pedestal acting as if they are Jesus Christ...ONLY Jesus Christ can do that. And why on earth would a Christian preacher (Wright) give a lifetime achievement award to a Muslim......Farrakhan???? As a Christian, this is very suspicious to me.

    Futhermore, I also blame white college kids who are Obama's core supporters. They also spew hate all over the Internet in defense of Obama 24/7. They blindfully supported Obama WITHOUT researching his platform....then alot of other whites followed suit.

    Bottom line....Obama needs to withdraw from the presidential race and the people of Illinois can deal with him and his Senate seat. Every candidate/man of God....including Obama and Wright, need to be held to the same standard...regardless of the color of their skin.

    If Obama was a white candidate....lets say Hillary Clinton and Wright was a white preacher....they would be fried by the media, black politicians and me....and rightfully so!

    I have been saying to family & friends for a year that Obama wasn't ready YET to be President...maybe in 8 years or a Governorship FIRST. Remember, you never want to set a person up for failure. As a Captain in the Army, my superiors would never put me in a position that I wasn't trained/ready for. The same should be the standard for the office of the Presidency.

    Experience for Obama is just NOT there yet. However, Obama's chances of holding a political office in the future is gone...probably forever.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 19 March, 2008 20:56  

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