Barack Obama has delivered his major speech on race — and in some parts, he spoke effectively. His observations on the ongoing anger and frustrations in both white and black communities will resonate to some degree, but other portions called into question the behavior of his own campaign in the last couple of weeks. It was probably enough, however, to succeed with its target audience.
First, let’s focus on the main reason for the speech. Obama needed to distance himself from the incendiary remarks of Jeremiah Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ for the last 20 years. Did he do that? Not really:
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
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.
It’s essentially a non-distancing distancing, akin to the non-apology apology. He excuses Wright’s anti-American rhetoric with a mixture of rationalizations. Wright gets a pass because he served in the military, because he grew up in another generation that apparently hated America, and because he does good work in other areas. Obama also makes the curious claim that rejecting Wright means rejecting the entire black community — something other black churches might see as rather presumptuous. Obama essentially argues that the same kind of anti-Americanism can be found in all black churches, and speaks at length about how the legacy of racism and Jim Crow makes this incendiary rhetoric ubiquitous.
Is that true? Hardly. Black ministers have flocked to the airwaves over the last few days to vehemently deny that kind of argument. However, Obama has little choice but to argue this, because he needs to cast his situation as having little choice in spiritual venues.
The nadir of the speech came in this passage about Geraldine Ferraro:
Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
Some have dismissed Ferraro? Perhaps Obama needs a reminder that it was his campaign that shrieked for Ferraro’s scalp for pointing out how his ancestry has affected the primary campaign. Ferraro didn’t say anything that Obama didn’t say in this speech. And yet the Obama campaign demanded that Hillary repudiate Ferraro in exactly the manner that Obama decried in his speech — and that just happened last week.
Hypocrisy? You bet, and by the cartload.
Other parts of his speech were more effective, especially in describing the black perspective on the continuing effects of racism and segregation. The lack of economic opportunities during Jim Crow did handicap black families from gaining wealth and passing it along to their children. Even with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and their subsequent enforcement, the black community still faced a large disadvantage in education, resources, and access. Affirmative Action turned out to be an imperfect way to address those disparities, and they created a great deal of legitimate resentment among whites who had never offended, which Obama also acknowledges. It’s a nuanced and incisive look into the heart of the racial divide we now face.
Did Obama succeed with this speech in containing the damage? It depends on the intended audience. This speech appears aimed at 795 specific individuals — Democratic superdelegates. Obama needed to show that he can address the racial issues in an inclusive manner, and walk the highwire with Wright by scolding him without alienating the black community. While the delivery was uncharacteristically lethargic, the content probably made the sale.
Unfortunately, he left himself still vulnerable by stubbornly refusing to ‘disown’ Wright; if anything else more incendiary comes up, he will have to address this all over again. He didn’t inoculate himself against future revelations, which is one of the main purposes of these kinds of speeches. We’ll see if that gamble pays off.