In an earlier post, I indicated that I had mixed feelings about Barack Obama’s speech on race relations. Specifically, I said it wasn’t clear to me what the core message of the speech was.
At that point, I had only heard various excerpts which had been played on cable TV. Now I’ve had a chance to listen to the speech in its entirety.
The core passage was not where Obama explained his relationship with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Still less the passing reference Obama made to his white grandmother — although that reference received more airtime than anything else in the speech.
I must also say, by way of dissent with this comment, that Obama did not set out to make race an issue in the election campaign. Nor to depict African Americans as victims. On the contrary: if Obama is pigeon-holed as “the black candidate”, his electoral prospects are zero. For precisely that reason, other people are making race the issue — not Obama.
Here is a key passage:
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. 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 healthcare, 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. (emphasis added)
The text in bold font captures Obama’s core message. Instead of being divided by their problems, black and white Americans (and Latinos and Asians and native Americans) need to draw on those grievances to bind their respective communities together, as against a common enemy.
Now that’s a provocative, fresh idea!
Backing up —
Near the beginning of the speech, Obama says Americans “cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.” He says that Rev. Wright’s remarks were not only wrong but divisive, at a time when America needs unity. America is facing 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 nor white nor Latino nor Asian.
Again, a little later: “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.” (btw, that was the first line to draw applause — fifteen minutes after Obama had begun to speak.)
Obama worries that whites have come to see “opportunity as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.” Several minutes later, he reaches out to them: “Investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
Obama wants Americans 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.” Again: “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.”
Now you can see why Obama’s theme was, perfecting the American union. It’s the core idea that ties the several parts of the speech together.
Unfortunately, the media didn’t grasp Obama’s core message. And neither did the blogosphere, to judge by the many blogs I have read on the speech.
Modern Westerners aren’t used to 35-minute long speeches. We aren’t used to discourse; we’re used to soundbites.
Obama took an enormous risk, offering us more than soundbites. I’m sure history will discern the core message of the speech. But in the short term, I think it sailed right over people’s heads.