Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Speech

Obama gave what has been characterized as a "major speech" on race this morning, in the wake of criticisms following his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ where Obama has long been an attendee. Here are some excerpts. First, Obama dismisses the two-dimensional characterization of the Reverand:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – 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.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

He then goes on to explain his involvement at TUCC:

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. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. 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.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him 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.

He then goes on discuss the larger issue of race in America:

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

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.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

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. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; 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. 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.

He then makes an offer to listeners, to help him move beyond a narrow understanding of race in our country:

...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.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

As Ben Smith states in his reaction to the speech:

It's quite a speech: autobiographical, embracing complexity, and answering questions about Wright -- whose most offensive words, he says, are beyond anything he'd heard in church -- without ultimately disavowing him.

Throughout, he insists on things that you don't get much of in politics: context and nuance.

It is quite a speech. Here's my initial reaction in an email to my co-bloggers this morning:

As I was driving in this morning I was thinking "What can he say about Wright that puts it in the context of race in this country?" and I think he nailed it. And he refuses to make a cowardly effort to "disown" Wright or deny his relationship to him, and explains what the man means to him as he at the same time make his satements on race. In other words, he made exactly what I (and a lot of people like us I think) thought would be the perfect speech to respond to this. Like Smith says, Obama demand nuance and complexity, and refuses to play some of the political games. And this speech perfectly encapsulates is why he's got my vote.

It's not just how he says it, it's what he says. Most politicians would've run away from Wright at the first opportunity, attempting to deny an obvious relationship with the man even if their denials and protestations were as transparent and flimsy as cling wrap. But not Obama. He rejects Wright's extreme proclamations, but goes on to explain and asks us to understand why Wright would feel the way he does, and why so many black (and white) Americans feel the way they do, even as he repeats beliefs that-as he says-most of us won't repeat in polite company. And he demands naunce, asking us to understand that Rev. Wright cannot be characterized solely by his most inflammatory statements. And he puts Wright's statements where they belong, in the context of race in America, asking us all to make a real effort to move beyond old ways and old beliefs.

I honestly don't mean to sound like an Obama homer here, and I don't think you have to be an Obama supporter to admire his speech and what he believes. Time and time again Obama has promised something beyond politics as usual, just like every other politician in every other race in America does. But Obama means it, and he puts his money where his mouth is. His honesty, his demand that we accept nuance and complexity, is exactly why he has my vote.

UPDATE: I should state that for the record, Barack Obama's thoughts on race mirror mine almost exactly and I doubt I'm the only liberal who feels this way. Honestly, it's quite impressive to hear a politician say what you think when it comes to a difficult and uncomfortable subject like race.

UPDATE II: I generally avoid Andrew Sullivan as of late because of his anti-Hillary screed's, but I thought this note on the speech was worth repeating:

I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.


UPDATE III: Video of the speech is on YouTube here. The speech is apparently driving some on the right into fits and rages, meaning it probably was exactly what he needed to say.

UPDATE IV: Oliver Willis says what I was thinking but didn't above:

It’s like you had Michael Jordan in his prime or Joe Montana with 2 minutes to go. It’s that feeling where you say to yourself: Ok, breathe, he’s got it.

Chill, Barack’s got it.

I also thought to myself this morning "If Obama is the man I think he is, then he'll say this." And he went out and he did. And yeah, it's like watching a super athlete take the field or the floor. You just know going to do something amazing...and then he does, just like you knew he would.

UPDATE V: Some more thoughts from the Field Negro.

1 comment:

adam said...

Only Obama could turn a potentially campaign-ending controversy into one of his best moments. Only he could deliver this speech. And only he can unite this country.