“…investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.” ~ Barack Obama
This is a call to all thinking people from any walk of life or any political orientation. Please set aside 40 or so minutes to listen to Senator Obama’s address on the subject of race in America. Or, if you prefer, carefully read the speech’s text.
Yes, there is a sentence or two about Senator Obama’s political positions, but 99% of the address is an earnest, thoughtful, sensitive and sophisticated sketch of how race sometimes divides America and the role race plays in American politics. Now, I’m not going to dare place Senator Obama in the rhetorical company of Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X – that requires critical distance and the voice of scholars. I will say that Americans living today have not heard a such a candid, intellectual speech on this topic by an American of Obama’s stature in decades; in that context, today’s address may prove historic.
Obama said everything I try to say when I discuss race in America with others, but Obama does it far more eloquently, skillfully, and far more thoroughly then I. So please, realize that yes, Barack Obama is speaking for himself here and speaking in order to preserve his presidential campaign, but this man is also speaking for me and millions of others like me of all races who wish America could have a factual and enlightened discussion on how to make America great for all people. I hope after you consider the Senator’s words, you can say that he speaks for you, too, irrespective of who you want to occupy the White House come next January.
Here are two excerpts that resonated with me:
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
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.
Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
Accurate and clear, but Obama’s brilliance comes from his sensitivity to the legitimacy of the opposing view point. Compare the following with the above:
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.
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. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of that last line because real-life discussions, especially online discussions, favor brevity. That doesn’t excuse my rhetorical failure, but it does remind me that I have to work harder to acknowledge the validity of the factors that shape my opponents’ opinions and express my beliefs in a clearer, more sympathetic way.
Having studied Martin and Malcolm a little bit, I would say this speech will become an oft-studied piece of American political rhetoric for some time to come. I also hope that this speech will be the cornerstone in future dialogs on race.
I commend this speech to you, my online friends, because I respect your collective intellect and expect you to be engaged in the nation-wide dialog on this country’s future. Arming yourself with a familiarity of this speech will make you a better, more informed citizen – whether you be liberal, conservative, libertarian, or moderate.