March 18, 2008

The Jeremiaid

I was pretty cynical about the Big Speech On Race today. Seemed to me that Obama had been maneuvered into the issue and that having repudiated the statements of his own pastor should have ended the whole Jeremiah Wright issue, and I was convinced the matter would blow over pretty quickly. It also seemed to me that the controversy was coming to light now at the hands of the Clinton machine, since it does not really benefit McCain for an attack that vicious to be made before it is really clear that Obama will be the nominee. So if there was anything to wait for, it would have been for the source of the controversy to get traced back to Camp Hillary and see what was going on there.

But I misread the playfield and the issue had a lot more legs on it than I gave it credit for having.

Perhaps that's because I think that black Americans have quite a lot to complain about. I can understand how a black man, particularly one who grew up in the age of segregation, would say "God damn America." That doesn't mean I would agree with the sentiment, but I could understand where the sentiment was coming from. Same place that produced Malcolm X's following, and a close look at Malcolm X reveals that he was actually a good deal more subtle in his criticism of American society than simply race-baiting. So it seemed to me that Rev. Wright's remarks were perhaps less artful than Malcolm X's, but nevertheless expressed (albeit crudely) a general sentiment that has a place in political debate.

Whether such political remarks have a place in a church is a different story, but that's not what I'm writing about today.

And perhaps, as someone who has an interest in constitutional law, I know that intemperate, crude remarks are often the ones that yield the most value from close examination. So I may well have over-analyzed what he said and in the process lost some of the visceral reaction to the ultimately indefensible statements. That would be a lawyer's mistake.

No, what's become very interesting is Obama's political response to this turning to a huge issue. Perhaps he saw that if mishandled or ignored, it could derail his campaign. Unless he did something to change the terms of the debate, it would continue to do him massive harm. And, being a politician, he perceived the harm in more palpable terms than I, sitting on the outside and not even technically a supporter of Obama (although I still like him better than Clinton) was really seeing for myself. So that was the motive force behind the speech this morning.

I heard some snippets of it on the radio, and read some excerpts at work, but didn't have time to read or listen to the whole thing until tonight. And now that I have read it, I can react to it from a better and more informed perspective.


Somehow, he managed to be uncompromising in his insistence on justice and treating all people the same regardless of race. He acknowledged that there are still problems that society needs to address and that a lot of those problems can be traced back to the Bad Old Days. But he also pointed to the fact that it isn't the Bad Old Days anymore and we have shown we can make progress. That we have made progress. We're a long way away from perfect and acknowledging that progress has been made does not relieve us of the burden of continuing down that road.

He condemned Wright's remarks again. I wish he could have been more direct about it, but the condemnation was there and it was not made with code phrases or weasel words. And he adroitly got out of the trap of trying to defend Wright and instead indicated that the very controversy was an indication that there is still a long road ahead of us, with much soul-searching and debate and disagreement along the way, before we are truly a fair and equal society. Impressively, he pulled no punches and was very clear that the racial attitudes of all racial groups have a negative impact on society as a whole. He leaves the impression of being fair and even-handed in his take on race relations in contemporary America.

I was impressed with telling the story of living with his white grandmother. He described her as being unreservedly loving, kind, and generous with him; protecting him and doing what she could to raise him as a good man and seemingly unconcerned at all with the fact that he was half black. His love for his grandmother is apparent. At the same time, she would use racial slurs to describe people which made young Barack cringe, and utterly failed to see anything wrong with her use of such language. In that way, he personalized racial issues into himself and his own experience, rendering himself a microcosm of the whole country struggling to live up to its own ideals. And he showed that we can love and forgive those among us who fall short of those ideals, for no reason other than that they, too, are a part of us who we must embrace despite not giving up our commitment to doing better than the past has done for us.

But most of all, he did it in a way that left the listener (or reader, in my case) with hope that we can eventually get there. He leaves the impression that by working together towards our common goals, we will come to realize that the racial divisions among us are simply unimportant and useless to making our lives better. And he conveys the conviction that we are a better people when we are united than we are when we separate ourselves.

Another knock-it-out-of-the-park moment for Barack Obama. My initial cynicism has been mostly replaced by admiration.


Arnie said...

I was quite disappointed in the media's analysis coverage of the speech. Each of the networks seemed to focus on a couple statements which had stand-alone soundbite appeal, but left the content and context of the speech ignored.

zzi said...

White minister "God is part of American Life. 1200 words.
Black minister "God Dam America"

Whether such political remarks have a place in a church is a different story, but that's not what I'm writing about today.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Dad -- I agree; it wasn't until I could consume the entire thing that I really understood what Obama was saying, and that changed my mind completely about it.

zzi -- Seriously. I don't understand what point you're trying to make. Just come out and say what's on your mind.

zzi said...

Your dad has the cool name in the family. And please don't throw him under the bus when things look bad.

-Arnie's Army