Obama’s Race Speech

Like him or hate him, you have to admit that Barack Obama is a helluva talented speaker. And, to top it all off, what CNN’s political pundit Bill Schenider calls the “most sophisticated speech on race and politics I’ve ever heard.”, was written by Obama himself.

You can check out all 38 minutes of Obama’s speech below.

More importantly, in case you have trouble focusing or just don’t have an hour to spend listening to a speech, HuffPo has the full transcript of the speech here.

For those of you not following the story, here it is in a nutshell. Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a nutbag. He has made way too many controversial statements, both racially and politically.

He criticizes “White” Americans and castigates the American government. MSNBC has this to say:

A videotape of one sermon captures Wright using a harsh racial epithet to argue that Clinton could not understand the struggles of African Americans.

“Barack knows what it means, living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people,” Wright said on Christmas Day of last year. “Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a [N-word]!”

In another sermon, delivered five days after the 9/11 attacks, Wright seems to imply that the United States had brought the terrorist violence on itself.

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York, and we never batted an eye,” Wright says. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is brought right back in our own front yards.”

In a later sermon, Wright revisits the theme, declaring: “No, no, no, not God bless America — God damn America!”

Pretty tough stuff to deal with, and really damaging to Obama’s claimed attempt to transcend racial politics. After the furor in South Carolina, Obama has to deal with it at some point. So he did. In Philadelphia, ahead of one of the last big primaries, he held a speech that dealt with race in an obvious way.

Responses to the speech have been mixed. The New York Times and LA Times both gave ringing endorsements to the speech, comparing it to visionary statements by people like Lincoln and Kennedy.

Even articles that are critical of his speech lend him some credit. The Houston Chronicle says “Holding a tough hand of cards, Obama responded to Wright’s outbursts with admirable finesse. He downplayed their outrageous, sometimes demented, nature by labeling them “divisive,” a moderate word. He refused to disown his pastor. He couldn’t. Doing so would have seemed craven after their long history together.”

The International Herald Tribune offers a more complex portrait of his speech, including an analysis of other media outlets.

Media analyses, in the United States and abroad, were overwhelmingly positive in describing Obama’s speech, which he felt compelled to deliver amid a firestorm of criticism of Wright. They also said it had unalterably changed the face of his campaign.

The Daily Telegraph of London called Obama’s speech “a spellbinding display of rhetorical brilliance,” but also said that he would never again be able to campaign as an American politician “who just happened to be black.”

“With this speech, he has become a black man running for president, taking on the mantle of Martin Luther King,” the newspaper wrote. “That makes it a great gamble, a move on to new terrain.”

Writing in The Guardian of London, Michael Tomasky noted that Obama had “seemed, as someone’s one-liner put it, ‘just the right amount of black’ ” – but that he had now presented Americans with a more complex and challenging self-portrait.

“I am sure it helps us, as a society, to hear it all put out there with intelligence and subtlety,” Tomasky wrote. “I am less sure about whether it will help him.”

One of the only truly negative critiques comes from the lovely (read: evil) Ann Coulter. I won’t do her a favour and link to her article, since it’s full of the typical juvenile vitriol we come to expect of the blonde lunatic, the Howard Stern-ette of the political sphere. The same woman who came out and accused 9/11 widows of profiting off the deaths of their husbands has the gall to claim that she is the authentic post-racial American and Obama is not.

For a smarter conservative critique, we can look to the National Review Online. That’s not a sentence that is normally written, but in this case it is true. Even they admit that the speech was well written and moving, but that it still dealt with some difficult material. Their argument that the sheer fact Obama had to ever downplay comments like this is problematic. That is difficult to argue with. I think everyone wishes Wright hadn’t said these things. Heck, I’m sure Wright probably wishes he hadn’t said some of this stuff now.

The San Francisco Chronicle speaks a little about the speech too, and seems to be overwhelmingly positive. They say that not only does it address the fears and the problems with Wright’s sermons, “But for those who were willing to listen, Obama’s Philadelphia speech provided a context to his relationship with Wright, as well as a fascinating discourse on the role of race in the framing of the U.S. Constitution, the culture of the black church, resentments among blacks and whites, and even the complexities of attitudes within his own biracial family. He spoke of his white grandmother who “loves me as much as she loves anything in this world” yet also feared black men passing her on the street uttered “racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Overall, the speech is full of good points and some bad ones. Obama may gloss over some of the problems but he does do a good job of defusing the issue. One of the more unlikely defenders of Obama and Wright is former Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He suggests (rightly so) that no politician should be held 100% accountable for what those around them say. Huckabee also says that pastors sometimes get carried away in their sermons and often things come out that aren’t exactly how they meant to say it.

He also correctly points out that these ridiculously offensive statements from Wright are not the only thing he’s done. Wright is a more complex man and has done a lot of good for his community. Those things should not be overlooked, but it should also not excuse him from his rants.

I’ll leave you with this little section of his speech.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

It’s impressive oration no matter if you believe him or not. And in truth it’s hard to agree with the idealism behind it. Practically it may be a different matter. However, I believe that any discussion on race that talks about it in terms of uniting instead of dividing, agreeing to accept flaws in a group’s views and not completely counting them out about it, can only be useful.

Obama declares that “there is not a black America and a white America… . There’s the United States of America.” If only this were true. Though with more open discussion about these issues, maybe it will be.

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