Barack Obama gave a powerful and uplifting speech in Philadelphia today, the immediate purpose of whch was to put behind him the issues raised by the hateful remarks of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
I believe he did so. But at a price that opens him up to a charge he has been trying to avoid since he began his historic run for the presidency: that he is a far left Democratic liberal who sees the government as the solution to most of the nation’s problems.
Overall, where Obama succeeded was in his interesting and incisive look at the state of race relations today. He said what needed to be said to both races in a way that didn’t come off as preaching, which it very well could have. Where he failed was in his prescriptions to solve the problem, which are nothing less than old fashioned liberal panaceas to be applied by government to cure society’s ills.
Obama began the speech with a reference to the Founding Fathers who wanted to form a more perfect union in creating the Constitution. He built upon this theme in a way that would have the Founders turning over in their graves; that the way to that “more perfect union” was through massive government intervention in the daily lives of American citizens.
More than at any other time in this campaign, Obama forcefully and without qualification endorsed across the board government intervention in every aspect of the lives of American citizens. This includes the prospect of joining whites and blacks together in a “victimhood coalition” to fight the enemy.
And who might that enemy be? Generally speaking, it is conservatives who are at the bottom of every problem enunciated by Obama during his 35 minute speech. Not once did Obama blame government policies for the problems of African Americans, low and middle income whites, or any other identity group he wished to bring into his victim coalition. Government is not only blameless, but statist solutions are the only way to fix what ails us, according to Obama.
Obama spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain that the rage expressed by Wright publicly is echoed in private by most blacks, and that whites cannot therefore understand how important it is for Wright to be allowed to spew his hatred to give voice to that anger:
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.
The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.
If it were only “anger,” it might be excusable. But venomous hate directed against whites and Jews cannot be explained away or excused, nor can Obama ask us to “understand” this hate-filled rhetoric any more than a white person should ask him to “understand” the rhetorical poison spewed by the David Dukes of the world.
Obama clearly rejects and condemned what Wright says. That is not an issue now. Obama wants us to understand where the anger is coming from. And to do that, he attempts to pull whites into his victimhood coalition by enunciating their resentments 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.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Shorter Obama to Whites: it’s not your fault you’ve been taken in by evil conservatives. You’re a victim too.
An opportunity missed to be sure. He could have condemned all forms of political correctness and what it leads to including campus speech codes, an inability to discuss race or gender issues in any meaningful way. Instead, he used the liberal definition of the practice to legitimize it.
The racial divide aspects of the speech were also fascinating in that Obama combined an extraordinarily brave and honest assessment of the state of race relations in the country (using his own remarkable life as a backdrop) with an appeal to support him based on his perceived ability to transcend his race. But how can he do that by not repudiating his hate filled pastor? Obama attempts to plant one foot firmly on either side of the divide but ends up failing because in the end, he must be who he is: a black man who, while not agreeing with Reverend Wright’s toxic words, nevertheless understands and agrees with the underlying reason he spouts them.
Above all, Obama sees the solution to the divide as whites and blacks united in asking for government help:
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans-the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family…
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper…
No one begrudges poor people the help they need to survive. But to what end? Obama’s one nod to a non statist solution to the problems of Black America echoes his Pastor and other Black leaders — including Louis Farrakhan:
And it means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
Ironically, this quintessentially American — and yes, conservative — notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
A mixed message from Wright to be sure. Take responsibility for your own life, but blame Whites for whatever goes wrong.
I am glad Obama gave this speech. I think it advanced the cause of racial healing. As a teacher to White America, he is the perfect candidate — non confrontational, cognizant of white concerns, and interested in moving beyond the current climate of fear and mistrust.
But ultimately, the speech — at bottom, an act of political necessity — raised issues Obama had been trying to keep in abeyance. His belief in a society of victims — both black and white — as well as his clear intent to radically invade the space of individual citizens will be picked apart by his Republican opponent John McCain. He could very well lose the support of some independents as a result of this speech.
As far as filling the immediate political need to lance the boil of Wright’s poisonous words, it succeeded. At what cost is yet to be determined.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nuthouse.