With a day’s worth of distance and perspective now, I stand behind the assertion I made yesterday that for everyone under the age of 40, ”A More Perfect Union” was the great American speech on race of our lifetime. 100 years from now, it will be the jumping off point for historians looking to assess the progress of race relations in early 21st century America.
But with that said, Obama isn’t running for president of the Smithsonian, he’s running for President of the United States, and the more immediate question is how the speech will hold up politically. Just a few scattered thoughts on the speech, the events of the past week, and what it all says about our great nation:
For many white voters, I think the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy represents a break in the unspoken pact they had with Barack Obama. The pact was, we won’t hold your race against you if you don’t hold our race against us the way other black leaders (Sharpton, Jackson, Farrakhan, etc.) do. And for most of the campaign, Obama has held up his end of that bargain.
When Bill Clinton in South Carolina compared Obama’s candidacy to Jesse Jackson’s– realizing the second the words were out of his mouth that the only similarity between the two was the color of their skin– Obama didn’t call the statement racist. He said Clinton was being “historically inaccurate.” When Geraldine Ferraro essentially called Obama America’s affirmative action hire and then blamed the blacklash against her on Obama himself and (somehow) the fact that she was white, Obama didn’t characterize her statements as racist. He said that she was expressing viewpoints forged in the “old politics” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In fact, there hasn’t been a single incident in this campaign, or any of his previous campaigns, where Barack Obama has accused someone of racism, despite numerous opportunities to do so.
But when white voters saw the clips of Rev. Wright railing against America’s racism the way many white Southern Baptist preachers rail against homosexuality and abortion, there was a certain level of shock. Wait a minute, they thought, Barack Obama promised not to hold our race against us if we didn’t hold his against him. So what’s he doing going to a black church for 20 years that treats racism like it’s still a problem in our society, and that has the audacity to still be upset about it?
I read a blog comment the other day by someone who said something like, “Listening to Rev. Wright speak makes you question whether Barack Obama believes there is something fundamentally flawed about America.” That’s the whole point! There is! And no one understands this better than the black community. Could Obama be any clearer about the fact that there is indeed something fundamentally flawed (fundamentally, not irreparably) about America than when he refers to racism as the Original Sin of our democracy?
You can’t have a country built on the institution of slavery, founded by men who believed that ownership of human beings was an acceptable practice, torn in half by a civil war, put back together and then nearly torn in half again 100 years later by Jim Crow, a country that has essentially put Band-Aids over the problem if not outright ignored it for the last 40 years, where yesterday for the first time in most of our lives a major American figure gave a speech on race that was more than pandering and platitudes, and say there is nothing fundamentally flawed about that country.
And this type of America-through-rose-colored-glasses reaction just proves Wright’s point– that most white Americans, like Hillary Clinton, will never know what it means to be black in the United States of America. Wright’s controversial comments were inflammatory, divisive, and at points ridiculous, but to dismiss them as baseless is an entirely unsympathetic misunderstanding of the black American experience.
I read an op-ed by conservative Pat Buchanan yesterday that illustrated the distance between white perceptions of race relations and the black reality (try not to chuckle at his throwback use of the word “Negroes”):
That Wright is a revered preacher in black America also tells us that, far from coming together, we Americans are further apart than we were in the 1950s, when Negroes could be described as Christian, conservative and patriotic. Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad did not speak for black America then. Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Dr. Martin Luther King did. But Jeremiah Wright makes Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown sound like the Mills Brothers.
The implication is that while “Negroes” used to be Christian, conservative, and patriotic, a collective 20 seconds of video by one black preacher in Chicago– trumping all other evidence to the contrary (such as the fact that blacks attend church and serve in the military at higher proportional rates than whites)– shows us that this is no longer the case.
Nevermind the obvious racism of Buchanan taking the words or actions of one black person and equating them to the entire community– which is the reason most black people spend the 6 o’clock local news hour hoping the criminals in today’s stories aren’t black, and which is the reason why no matter what Barack Obama does he will be unable to distance himself in the minds of many white voters from men like Wright and Farrakhan (they have the same color skin, they must all secretly think alike).
The real flaw in Buchanan’s argument is that he apparently believes the measured, methodical, “patriotic” reaction to racism of Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins was the right one, the natural one. According to Buchanan, these men spoke for black America. Whereas the more visceral, angered reactions of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael were wrong, unnatural, “unpatriotic.” These men were the aberration in black America.
But the truth is that the Malcolm Xs and the Stokely Carmichaels did in fact speak for much of black America, and their take on combatting racism was every bit as valid (not nearly as effective, but every bit as valid) as Martin Luther King’s. In fact, what people fail to remember is that Martin Luther King was seen by many blacks– especially those in non-Southern urban industrial centers like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles– as an overly conciliatory, lay-down-and-take-it pacifist. King was as unpopular in some segments of the black community back then as he was in segments of the white community.
What people fail to remember is that King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t the black community’s natural reaction to racism, not even in King’s then-hometown of Montgomery. It had to be taught church-by-church, practiced meeting-by-meeting, and demonstrated in action boycott-by-boycott, march-by-march.
In other words, King’s strategy of nonviolence won the day because of the hard work of one-community-at-a-time organizing that he and other Southern black leaders put into it, not because getting hit with firehoses and attacked with dogs and lynched in front yards and not striking back in anger is the natural thing to do. King didn’t speak for black America, he spoke for the black American majority that he built through a decade of work.
But that doesn’t make King’s reaction to racism more valid than Malcolm X’s or Stokely Carmichael’s. If those men had had the communications and organizing skills of Martin Luther King, America could easily be a very different place.
Likewise, the offending sermons of Rev. Wright and his take on America’s history of racism and entitlement were, in Obama’s words, “divisive” and “profoundly distorted.” But to say that Wright’s reaction to racism is less valid than Barack Obama’s is a mistake.
The people who are tripping over themselves to pass judgment on Wright– the mostly rich, mostly white news anchors, talk show hosts, and pundits– the people who are purposefully blowing the story out of proportion, deliberately working their audiences into a frenzy, the people who are now equating Wright with Hitler– equating an American, Christian pastor to Hitler– are the very people Wright was referring to in his Christmas sermon. They’re all of course free to say and think what they want about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama, but they can never and will never know what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture controlled by rich, white people.
For those still struggling to understand it, here’s a small clue: What it means is that while John McCain gets to spend a week doing photo-ops with world leaders, beefing up his foreign policy credentials, doing fundraisers in Europe; and Hillary Clinton gets to spend a week campaigning around Pennsylvania, giving speeches on health care and the economy, working behind the scenes to woo superdelegates (yesterday, she snagged her first two since Super Tuesday); Barack Obama’s campaign has to stop dead in its tracks for a week– and probably more– to give interviews and speeches about the color of his skin and the history of race relations in America.