Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack Obama's Challenging Race Speech

Barack Obama's speech today on race and religion was among the most powerful and poignant speeches ever. The words were stirring, evocative, and served as a call to action on the race front in America.

We often forget that it took the United States many years after the civil war to rid itself of the evil of slavery. “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."

He addressed those who thought that he was where he was not by dint of his merit but as a result of affirmative action. At the same time, he rejected Reverend Wright’s racist remarks, repudiating his racism while harboring no hatred for the man. “On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation, that rightly offend white and black alike …

“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 the 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.”

He was blunt about the effects of racism in our society. “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.”

Obama is, however, not one to give in to despair and cynicism. “But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. 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 who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our 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.”

With this speech, I believe Barack Obama has convinced a majority of undecided Americans that he is the best candidate to be the next president of the United States. His words of hope, change, action, accountability and responsibility struck a deep chord with people from all walks of life and will prove to be decisive in the November election.

Also today, the Wall Street Journal carried an article by Shelby Steele called "The Obama Bargain" in which he suggests that Obama has used his race as a "bargain." As a bargainer, Obama makes "the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain - and feel affection for the bargainer - because it gives them innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity (in italics) for whites to experience racial innocence."

This is a conspiracy theory of the most subtle kind. Mr. Steele should read Obama's speech in full (… we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap …) and recognize that his thesis is not merely untenable, it is downright disingenuous.

Barack Obama is not bargaining for anything. His sight is set on a higher plane. He is telling us that together, we are more than the sum of our creed and color. He is calling for a reconciliation grounded in our common hopes and aspirations. It is the surest way to end racism in our country as we march toward a “more perfect union.”

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