Obama on race

I know that all of my well-informed Dharmaniac friends have already watched and read about Obama’s speech today on race. But just in case, here’s a link to the transcript of A More Perfect Union and the youtube recording:

I’d like to highlight some parts of the speech that I thought were important and hear from any of you who care to comment about what you thought. I’m not interested in the politics of this speech and its impact on the election. Nor am I interested in hearing Obama “denounce” Reverend Wright enough to satisfy the US exceptionalists. What I’m interested in is his definition of the problem of race in this country and the potential remedies to which he points.  

Obama begins by acknowledging the imperfections of this union and the struggles of generations to overcome them.

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

In talking about Reverend Wright, after he distances himself from the anger, Obama has this to say:

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.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

After addressing some of the worst aspects of Jim Crow days, he gets downright honest in the following passage:

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.

Obama then has the audacity to address the concerns of working white people who have been damaged by the system as well.

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.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, 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.

As far as a prescription for change, here is Obama’s main message:

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. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

All I can add is “AMEN!!!”


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  1. what you think about how Obama has framed the conversation about race in this country today.  

  2. but it remains to be seen whether or not it’ll be picked up, or even acknowledged.

  3. How long have we languished in racism and all the negative isms.  Since this union was formed. Is it time to see that this only holds us captive to the hatred and fear and doubt that appeals to the lowest common denominator among us. This is not specific but universal. This is a voice I want to speak for me in the world at large, and I hope here in my silly land.

    • kj on March 19, 2008 at 2:48 am

    with an understanding of “us v them” from both sides.  highly unusual attribute for a presidential candidate to possess.  but… it was this simple line that hit home with me:

    These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

    thanks, NL.  i had not seen nor read the speech before your essay.

  4. My interest in Obama stems from reading his book “Dreams From My Father.” I have always hoped that the person I was introduced to in that book still lived somewhere in this man that is running for president. Today I saw that person again.  

  5. And he wrote it himself without speech writers.  And it worked.  And he inspired me.

    The trick would be to get Americans to listen to the speech itself, rather than not listen to the speech and listen instead to the dickheads pundits’ description of the speech.  Is that too much to ask?

  6. …”I’m here because of Amanda” would become the new hot political slogan.

  7. I think it’s time to rip the bandaide (ouch) off and explore the controversial subject of WHITE RACISM.

    Is it real.

    Where does it exist.

    What are the demographics?

    What are near term strategies and longer term strategies for

    loosening its stranglehold as all racism does no one good at a time we are facing such difficult problems

    Lastly, is Obama really being subjected to racism or does he have communication issues with white middle class males.BTW my guess is its a bit of both.

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