I have heard, or read, some great speeches on race in America—Bobby Kennedy’s impromptu plea for peace, delivered from the back of a flatbed truck in Indianapoils on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed;
Bill Bradley taking the Senate to school the day after the Rodney King riots, slamming a bundle of pencils against the podium 56 times—the number of blows from police truncheons King endured—for emphasis (“pow! pow! pow!”); any one of a dozen of the Rev. King’s speeches. And I have heard candidates, at pivotal moments in a campaign, find the words to confront their critics and defuse a crisis. But I do not think I have ever heard a speech that so adroitly combined the two— that placed both the crisis, and the campaign, in the larger context of race in America—as the speech Barack Obama delivered in Philadelphia Tuesday morning.
It was honest, it was brave, it was unusually personal, but most of all it was... sensible. It was not “inspirational,” in the singsong, cheerleading style of Obama’s everyday campaign speeches. If it was inspiring, it was because it was so clearly predicated on a faith in the ability of the public to absorb a complex message—or rather, a message whose central theme, woven .throughout, was of complexity: that life is complex, people are complex, the United States is complex. It succeeded, I think, not just in presenting a convincing account of his relationship with his former pastor, the racebaiting Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but even of turning the controversy to his advantage.
The threat to his candidacy was real enough. Wright’s speeches, widely disseminated on the Net, were not just “controversial” or “incendiary,” in the careful euphemisms of the polite press. They were paranoid, hatefilled compendiums of every conspiracy theory, racial grievance or blame-America-first sentiment that ever cropped up on a loony-left
website. That Obama could have been so faithful a participant in this man’s church for 20 years, that he could have given him such a central place in his life—baptizer of his children, inspiration of his books—was not something that could simply be dismissed as guilt by association. If it was a stretch to believe that Obama secretly, against all the evidence, harboured the same views, the case could be made that he was willing to consort with a racial extremist if it helped establish his political standing in the Chicago black community—at once undermining the twin appeals of his candidacy, both his personal authenticity and his post-racial message of reconciliation. Clearly, Obama had some explaining to do.
His white grandmother could love him, but confess her ‘fear of black men on the street’
He began, fittingly given his setting, with the foundational paradox of American history: a constitution that proclaimed the equality of every citizen, yet was “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” Another black leader might have dwelled on this contradiction. Instead, Obama focused on the impossibility of that tension remaining unresolved: the ideals in the constitution themselves planted the seeds of an inevitable progress toward greater equality—though not one that could be realized without generations of struggle and sacrifice.
If it had taken too long to see those gains realized, that helped to explain the anger of men of Rev. Wright’s generation. Explain,
but not excuse: Wright’s mistake was not to speak about racism, but to believe that nothing had changed, that progress was impossible—to elevate “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” Indeed, Obama’s own candidacy was, he implied, the most eloquent rebuke to Wright’s pessimism.
This is the theme that runs throughout the speech, a relentless balancing of opposites, a pairing of contradictory ideas. The same Wright who could preach such bile from the pulpit was also the man who taught Obama faith and love, and his community self-reliance. Is it so impossible to believe, in that context, that Obama could love the man and hate his views? That he could condemn his sermons, without disowning him? No more than that his own white grandmother, the woman who helped raise him, could love him deeply, yet confess “her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.” So it was necessary to condemn such views, but also to understand where they came from—both at the same time, not one or the other, as partisans of the right or left tend to do. In the same way, it was not enough to dismiss white resentments, but also to understand white fears. If some demagogues had exploited black rage for political gain, others had done the same, many times over, with whites. That did not make either side’s anger illegitimate. But in neither case was anger enough. Blacks were entitled to press for change, for bet-
ter social services and against discrimination, but also to realize “our own complicity in our condition.” Whites had a right to want safe streets without being accused of racism, but also had to understand the reality of black grievances.
In the end, what was most impressive was his steely disavowal of that trite strategy of a politician in trouble, the plea to be allowed to “move on.” To the contrary: you want to talk about race, Obama challenged his critics? All right, let’s talk about it. Move on? Let’s dive in. M
ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Coyne, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewcoyne
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