Barack Obama's magnificent speech on race
FLANKED by eight American flags, with Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where America declared its independence, as the backdrop, on Tuesday, March 18, Senator Barack Obama delivered by far the most comprehensive speech on race relations in America in living memory.
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address during the civil war in 1865 ("Four score and seven years ago …"), John F. Kennedy's new frontier inaugural speech in 1961 ("Ask not what your country can do for you …") and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Washington, DC speech on civil rights in 1963 ("I have a dream …") are part of America's school and college curricula.
It is a good bet that excerpts from Obama's speech on race, "A More Perfect Union," will make it into America's history, civics, and English textbooks for many years to come.
With a racial history of slavery, discrimination and oppression, race is a taboo subject in America; it is a hot button issue, a hot potato no one wants to handle. Americans talk about race only among their own kind; there is no cross-race discussion on a subject that is on everyone's mind. Obama forced America to examine their racial attitudes by shining light on this dark subject.
Obama did not patronise his audience; he treated Americans as adults. There is no one else of comparable stature more uniquely qualified to talk about race. With a black father and a white mother, Obama straddles both the races; he embodies both the genes. Obama appealed to America's better angels.
Senator Obama did not step into this maelstrom voluntarily. He had to address the controversial remarks of his spiritual mentor and former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who has denounced the United States as endemically racist, bloodthirsty and rotten to the core, or risk the unraveling of his quest for the presidency.
Mr. Obama acknowledged his strong ties to Rev. Wright "who helped introduce me to my Christian faith," and said that "as imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. Mr. Obama said Mr. Wright's comments were not just potentially offensive, but "rightly offend white and black alike" and are wrong in their analysis of America. But, he said, many Americans "have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagree."
Obama put Rev. Wright, his experience, and his demagoguery into the larger context of race relations with honesty unprecedented in American history.
Obama recounted the nation's ugly racial history of slavery and Jim Crow, which masquerade today in the form of racial segregation, unequal schools, economic inequality and disproportionate incarceration of blacks that shaped people like Rev. Wright:
"For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and fear have not gone away, nor the anger and the bitterness of those years. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. 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. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
For the first time a black politician addressed legitimate white grievances. Many white Americans do not see that their race as an advantage. Obama acknowledged that while these feelings are not always voiced publicly, they find expression in the voting booth.
For those of my readers who have not had the chance to listen to or read Obama's speech, please read the following excerpt, and ask yourself: when was the last time someone running for US president, or any elective office anywhere, spoke so eloquently, so honestly, and so courageously on such a delicate subject as race:
"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 labour. 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 neighbourhoods 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.
"Just as black anger often proved counter-productive, 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 favour the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognising they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
"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 naive 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.
"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. 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.
"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."
Refusing to repudiate his pastor Obama said: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother." That woman whom he loves deeply, he said, "once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street" and more than once "uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
It is too early to know if America will rise above the racial divide and truly unify as one nation, as Barack Obama beckons them to do, and whether they will open up an honest dialogue on race and listen to each other's point of view. Barack Obama has raised the racial discourse to a higher plane. The question is: will America follow his lead?