Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama Breaks the Race Taboo

We live in a country where race is omnipresent but, as I've argued before, we rarely talk about it in constructive ways.

Yesterday Obama broke that taboo. If you still haven't seen his wonderful, not-digestible-in-sound-bites speech, here it is. You'll find links to the transcript below the video player.

You can read the full text of Obama's remarks at the Huffington Post or at his campaign's website.

Rence pointed me to reports at the Daily Kos that Obama wrote the speech himself, the first time a national politician did this for a major address since Nixon. I find it alarming that we have to hark back to Nixon as a sort of role model, albeit an evil one.

I'm not sure I've ever heard such a nuanced political speech - and I've only rarely read such an eloquent and precise analysis of the convoluted politics of race in America. I could easily assign it for one of my classes. His speech reflects the concerns of an intellectual deeply committed to public service, and not the pandering impulses of political consultants and speechwriters. I do recognize that speechwriters play a vital role, but this speech is wonderful precisely because it was shaped by Obama's principles and biography, not by focus groups.

My favorite parts are his analysis of white working-class and black resentment. He acknowledges both, which is exactly what has to happen if we're ever to move beyond it, and he also explains where they come from, historically. His point about the lack of opportunities for black families to accumulate wealth is one I make whenever I teach about race, though I use the example of my grandpa who bought Standard Oil stock around 1900, when most black Americans hadn't a penny to invest anywhere.

And boy - don't all of us have someone in the family tree who's prone to making impolitic and even offensive statements? (Venting is permitted on this in comments!)

Finally, I hope this speech lays to rest the pernicious idea that Obama believes that America is the Evil Empire. At times we've behaved like one; yet his candidacy expresses America's most generous impulses and reminds us that we all have better angels, individually and collectively.

In light of yesterday's speech, it's no longer possible to claim that Obama's call for unity is empty. It's not just acquiescence to mealy-mouthed bipartisanship in the style of Joe Lieberman. On the contrary, Obama calls us to work through some of the hardest elements in American history. As Jim Wallis wrote in the Huffington Post, he challenges us to bridge the gulf of ugly mistrust between blacks and whites that the fracas over his minister exposed again this week. That's not what I'd call capitulating to the Republicans. That's what I'd call transcending them.

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