March 22, 2008—Barack Obama’s speech on race – both laying out the nation’s multi-sided racial resentments and pointing to a path beyond them – might be called his “Michael Douglas moment,” reminiscent of the speech near the end of “The American President.”
After weeks of political maneuvering in his pursuit of a second term – and finally fed up with the attack politics of his opponent, Bob Rumson – the President bursts into the press room to denounce the smears and to renounce his own politics of equivocation.
“We have serious problems to solve,” Douglas says, “and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-age, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism. …
“We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people. And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.”
Over the years when I’ve watched movies like that – in which the protagonist takes a stand for what’s right even if it’s unpopular – I’ve often wondered what happens next. Usually, the Hollywood ending suggests that things work out and decency triumphs.
But – in today’s media/political environment – would a speech like the one given by the Michael Douglas “President” be received respectfully or become the object of ridicule? Would the talking heads on cable TV and the loud voices of talk radio jibber-jabber the speech to death? Would he have stood a chance to win re-election?
Similar questions are now relevant regarding Obama’s daring speech about race, in which he addressed some of the harsh rhetoric of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who decried the history of the U.S. government’s abuse and violence toward non-whites and objected to the phrase “God Bless America” by inserting instead, “God Damn America.”
The video clips of Wright – in his sparkling robes gesticulating and gyrating around the pulpit – were shown repeatedly on cable news, especially on Fox, where hosts like Bill O’Reilly termed Wright’s comments “America-hating.”
Obama, in turn, was condemned for staying in a church where the pastor would make such incendiary comments.
The Wright issue played into other challenges to Obama’s patriotism, including complaints that the Illinois senator had stopped wearing an American flag-lapel pin because he felt President George W. Bush was exploiting patriotism to justify the Iraq War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Why the War on Obama.”]
So, in a remarkable speech on March 18 in Philadelphia, Obama both rejected Wright’s controversial statements and put them in the context of the pain and humiliation that black men of Wright’s generation faced.
But Obama went even further, recognizing the grievances felt by working-class whites and other Americans who resent what they see as special favors that blacks have received as affirmative action to address the lingering effects of slavery and segregation.
Throughout the speech, there was an echo of Michael Douglas’s appeal to seriousness as Obama urged the nation to set aside the endless political distractions as represented by cable TV’s repetitive showing of the clips from Wright’s emotional sermons.
“Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive,” Obama said, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health-care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
“Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?
“And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.
“But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor.
"He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day-care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.”
Obama also tried to explain the mood at Wright’s Trinity Church:
“Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.
“The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
“And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.
“Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. ”
Obama pressed on, into more controversial areas, comparing his conflicted feelings about Wright with his sentiments about similar strengths and shortcomings among white Americans, including his white mother’s family.
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama continued. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
“These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
Obama then shifted from the personal to the political:
“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.
“And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American. …
“For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. 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. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.”
Obama then recognized grievances felt by whites:
“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.”
Obama urged both sides of this divide to understand that other powerful forces are at play, exploiting their legitimate grievances:
“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. …
“This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
“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. …
“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.”
Obama then addressed the “Michael Douglas question” – does America of this era have the seriousness of purpose to tackle its daunting problems or are too many people addicted to the perverse pleasure that comes from tuning in the smirking TV talking heads or the rabid voices of anger and hate on talk radio.
Obama said: “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 O.J. 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.
“I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country.
“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
In the days after Obama’s speech, the jury was still out on which choice the American people would make. Fox News and other right-wing outlets kept hammering away at Obama over the Wright controversy, even accusing Obama of abusing his white grandmother by comparing her attitudes to Wright’s “anti-Americanism.”
But comedian Jon Stewart may have spoken for more Americans when he ended a “Daily Show” segment on the speech with a look of amazement on his face and said, “so, at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”
The speech also drew praise from some conservatives as well as many liberals. It was cited by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as part of his reason for endorsing Obama in a joint appearance on March 21 in Portland, Oregon.
“As a Hispanic-American, I was particularly touched by his words,” said Richardson, a former rival for the Democratic nomination.
But – like the unanswered question from “The American President” about whether America is ready for “serious people” to seek solutions to its “serious problems” – the final ending of Obama’s dramatic speech is yet to be written.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on March 24, 2008.