speech on race
in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008 was noteworthy. What follows is the
commentary and analysis of 10 members of the BlackCommentator.com Editorial
Obama offered a brilliant and inspiring address which was, nevertheless,
a bit problematic. On the one hand, he spoke to the people of the United
States about race in a manner that has only occasionally taken place
(such as during the Jesse Jackson campaigns). He spoke as someone from
both inside and outside the African American experience and was completely
unapologetic about the rage that we feel, as a people, for the injustices
that we have suffered over the centuries.
Obama, at one and the same time, attributes much of the anger of Rev.
Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather
than the fact that Rev. Wright's anger about the domestic and foreign
policies of the USA are well rooted--and documented--in the current
reality of the USA.
Obama's address offers the vision of hope and change, which are critical
for all those engaged in the struggle for social justice. He correctly
identifies that this is not the same country that it was 50 or 100 years
ago. He also correctly identifies that race still matters in the conditions
of African Americans. He also insists that the issues facing African
Americans must be joined with the issues facing other oppressed people,
including but not limited to white working people, and not reserved
for us alone. In that sense he suggests the importance of the links
among those who have found themselves under the heal of this system.
mainstream politician running for the Presidency, and particularly for
an African American running for the Presidency, this was a critical
speech to give. It was essential that he not walk away from, or disown
Rev. Wright. At the same time, when we live in a society that is so
much in denial of the actual conditions of the oppressed both inside
and outside our borders; that has come to accept torture; that often
cannot comprehend the tragedy facing the Palestinians; that was angry
about, yet threw up its hands in the face of the Katrina disaster (and
the government's lack of response); that witnesses major banks and corporations
disembowel communities and face few consequences, the anger that was
displayed by Rev. Wright should not have surprised anyone. It is both
anger AND hope that are critical for a genuine movement that wishes
to transform this country. The anger of a Rev. Wright is not a throw-back,
but is a reality check.
Board Member Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The
Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute
for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.
William L. (Bill) Strickland
My first reaction to the smear campaign
against Barack Obama kicked off by Fox News’s guilt-by-association tarring
of Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was smugly racial. After all,
they had attacked Reverend Wright for being “unpatriotic” and “un-American”,
but they had not dared to say that what Wright had said was untrue, that
America is run by rich white people, that Hillary Clinton didn't know
what it meant to be black and that America was founded on racism.
But after reading Obama’s speech, two
time-distant recollections triggered another thought about America’s problem
which goes far deeper than right-wing race-mongering.
The first recollection was of Jack
Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men” where prosecuting attorney, Tom
Cruise makes a demand saying: “I want the truth!” and Jack thunders back: “You can't handle the truth!”
The second memory was of a question posed in the post WW II era either
by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre or the Algerian writer Albert
Camus. One of them asked: “Can a system condemn itself?”
That is, I think the real issue: Can
America face the truth about itself and its History? Reverend Wright is
doubtful and Obama is hopeful, but forty years ago another truth-telling
black man, also speaking in a church, called America the greatest purveyor
of violence in the world today.” His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
and he too, like Reverend Wright and Obama, was pilloried for telling
the truth about his country.
But if the truth is un-American, one
may rightly ask: Can America be changed. Obama hopes so.
We shall see…
Editorial Board Member Willian
L. (Bill) Strickland - Teaches political
science in the W.E.B.
Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts
Amherst, where he is also the Director of the Du Bois Papers Collection.
The Du Bois Papers are housed at the University of Massachusetts library,
which is named in honor of this prominent African American intellectual
and Massachusetts native. Professor Strickland is a founding member of
the independent black think tank in Atlanta the Institute of the Black
World (IBW), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Strickland was a consultant
to both series of the prize-winning documentary on the civil rights movement,
on the Prize (PBS Mini Series Boxed Set), and the senior consultant on the PBS documentary,
American Experience: Malcolm X: Make It Plain.
He also wrote the companion book Malcolm
X: Make It Plain.
Most recently, Professor Strickland was a consultant on the Louis Massiah
film on W.E.B. Du Bois - W.E.B. Du Bois:
A Biography in Four Voices.
here to contact Mr. Strickland.
It’s in the Details
The speech on race in America that
Barack Obama gave in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 was moving and sounded
wonderful, as full of hope and the possibility of change as most of
his speeches. But it did nothing to unravel the central contradiction
of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. That contradiction is rooted in the fact that
America has always needed a class of workers who are kept downtrodden
and in poverty to make its economy work. That is a fact that has not
changed, and none of the remaining presidential candidates are dealing
In the beginning it was slavery that
provided that group of second class workers, who toiled away at vital
jobs in unspeakably inhumane conditions for no pay at all. Later, when
the nation’s hardest, least desirable but still essential jobs were
being done by newly arrived immigrants – of all colors – racism still
locked most African Americans into virtual slavery even after the institution
of slavery was officially ended.
Today the fundamentally inhumane
contradiction of the American economy is that it doesn’t need American
workers anymore – of any color. Companies move jobs to wherever in the
world labor is cheapest – or replace human workers entirely with computerized
control systems. A handful of big, privately owned global corporations
control the economy and get our country to make policies that support
their profits by making lavish campaign contributions to both the Democrats
and the Republicans.
As a result America, like much of
the world, faces a growing polarization of wealth and poverty. In that
reality of harsh global capitalism, the new racism is poverty. A new
class of dispossessed is growing in America, people of all colors pushed
out of the opportunities for good educations, good jobs, good health,
good housing. We are becoming more of a police state as this impoverished
low-wage and no-wage class is seen as potentially explosive and must
be held in check.
As poverty has spread to broader
and broader sections of our society, there has been a steady push to
put in place a system of laws to contain not African Americans, but
the impoverished. Managing and controlling the new class of dispossessed
is the new paradigm of policing and incarceration. The main agenda for
global corporations is to continue to automate production, eliminate
jobs, lower wages and cut benefits, so poverty and homelessness will
continue to grow. This has already made our nation the world’s leading
prison nation. This travesty is driven by the market economy and global
capitalism more than racism.
Mr. Obama’s address failed to address
any of this, just as his campaign speeches fail to address it. But his
former pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was trying to raise some of
these issues as he advised his congregation not to get so lost in their
“middleclassness” that they failed to reach out to those in poverty.
Mr. Obama said, “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.”
And America certainly has changed,
in that it has allowed a certain number of African Americans, like our
present secretary of state, and our former secretary of state, and Mr.
Obama, among others, to join the privileged class. But the profound
mistake of Mr. Obama’s speeches is that he speaks as if our economic
system isn’t static in its irrepressible need to push a high proportion
of its people to the economic bottom, where they can be exploited cheaply
for whatever contributions they can make, and pushed out of the economic
system entirely – discarded, thrown away – if they cannot be exploited
While it is clear that a disproportionate
number of African Americans are tortured by inadequate health care;
poor housing, inadequate educations, abusive criminal justice, unemployment
and high crime, much of this today is because they live in poverty.
And in the global capitalism of today these conditions now exist for
countless numbers of other Americans, white, Asian, Latino and others.
In Mr. Obama’s Democratic Party,
the last two candidates standing represent the longings of historically
oppressed groups. Early in the election season both major political
parties faced a decline in interest in politics. Both desperately needed
new faces in order to enthuse new voters and siphon off some of the
discontent with the increasingly corporate direction of our country.
Many workers believe that the Democratic Party is going to protect them
from escalating job loss and home loss, growing denial of health care
and escalating poverty. Nothing Mr. Obama has said so far indicates
that he has a program to do that.
Mr. Obama’s speech on race discussed
at length the personal impact of historical racism. American workers,
whether employed or unemployed, don’t have an organization to protect
them from the personal impact of being pushed toward poverty by corporate
actions and national economic policy. The major political parties have
shown that their main interest is in following the money, and in staying
away from where the money isn’t. The new class of poor and working people
desperately need an independent politics dedicated to improving their
lives. For instance the vast productive power of this largely automated
economy could end poverty and homelessness tomorrow, if only the “we
the people” controlled it. But that of course would not serve the upper
class agenda he now represents. While he was once a community organizer
in poor neighborhoods, powerful forces have rallied around him as a
Besides the unprecedented millions
that both the Democratic Candidates have garnered in this election plenty
have documented who are the global leaders that serve as part of Obama's
top advisors and they include, Zbigniew Brzezinsk, Dennis Ross who advised
Clinton and both Bushes, Anthony Lake, a big proponent and supporter
of World Bank and IMF roles as well as generals. We can conclude that
while major party politicians can talk about change, they are not likely
to fight for the kinds of changes that would really end poverty. To
do that, we the people must organize with new ideas and a new vision
of justice. In the face of the growing encroachment on rights and democracy
we, the people must gain the political power to direct society's resources
so we can end the problems of poverty, national & women’s oppression,
and this outrageous war. A new society is not only possible, but necessary.
Board Member Ethel Long-Scott - Executive Director of the Women's
Economic Agenda Project, (WEAP).
She is known nationally and internationally for devoting her life to
the education and leadership of people at the losing end of society,
especially women of color. She is dedicated to economic security and
justice and believes that the US is engaged in a relentless war against
workers and the poor. Click
here to contact Ms. Long-Scott.
I welcome Obama's principled and
eloquent response to the "Rev. Wright" controversy. This
provided an unprecedented teaching moment for the country, an opportunity
for him to address directly the issues of racism in the American polity,
and, more subtley, the polarizing tactics of the corporate media.
While I do not share his opinion that Rev. Wright's views are "distorted",
I think he handled the question of their relationship - and by extension
his relationship with the Black community - with integrity. It is
unfortunate that, as Blackness is apparently equated with lack of
patriotism, he felt it necessary to reaffirm his committment to the
fight against "radical Islam." On the whole, however, it
was a brilliant exercise of statesmanship.
Board Member Jeanne Woods, JD - Visiting professor
at the University of Maryland School of Law from the College of Law
at Loyola University, New Orleans. Click
here to contact Ms. Woods.
was timely, to say the least. I see it as a defining moment
for Obama as a candidate, where he had to 'come clean' regarding
race in U.S. society. It elevates his statesmanship above the
other candidates. Whether or not this makes him more electable...well,
we shall see.
He raised the
issue about the 'elephant in the room' that the mainstream media
has not really raised, except in silly, ahistorical, and ultimately, meaningless
ways. His speech is important on several fronts. First,
it shows a candidate (finally....)who is not afraid to talk about
race - and class - in U.S. society in an open, and substantive,
The speech is
important (and historical) because it helps to neutralize right
wing propaganda aimed at exploiting race as a divisivie mechanism
to obfuscate discussions about class issues in U.S. society. And,
the speech is also important because it challenges right wing media
and its propaganda machine in utilizing its definition of 'patriotism'
as a litmus test for support.
does not allow communication and debate about the various racial
and ethinic experiences in this nation, then it is an incomplete
patriotrism. After this speech, patriotism should be viewed
as a space for debate about racial, class, and historical issues,
rather than simplistically, a space to pledge blind allegiance to
a preconceived notion of America, - no questions asked...
of the speech is that class issues are raised as important, but
little discourse about how we can discuss such, within a context
of the nation's racial history, and racial alienation among many
in this society. Alas, raising this issue as natinonal, indeed
international, may be the first step in responding to the latter.
If this nation
is true to its values, then this one speech should move us forward
in talking with, and mobilizing, each other. Of course, talk
is always cheap...from talk, we need to move towards substantive
programs and policies that ensure that every person in U.S. society
can have access to, and enjoy, a decent standard of living for him/her,
and his/her family, as well as the neighbors in our neighborhood,
and other neighborhoods.
Editorial Board Member James Jennings,
PhD - Professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at
Tufts University. Click
here to contact Dr. Jennings.
Will the Republican
candidate John McCain have to deliver a speech of explanation and
apology for the endorsement he sought from Rev. John Hegee, who
has made a career denouncing certain groups of Americans?
Would Sen. Obama
have had to distance himself from his pastor of 20 years, the Reverend
Jeremiah Wright if he were not an African American running for the
views have not “denigrated both the greatness and goodness of our
nation.” Look at the U.S. domestic and foreign policies of
the last 40 years. These policies have not benefited the masses
of Black, Brown, Red, and poor whites nor have they benefited the
Caribbean, Latin American, African, and Middle-Eastern nations.
If all of our
stories are to be heard, then Rev. Wright’s story needs hearing
too. Racism is “endemic” in this country. It rests at
the foundation of this nation. Ask the Native Americans!
What of Black
Americans who have asked for reparations and have been mocked. What
of the “incendiary” language and “distorted” Americans hold toward
other nations of color - other nations with material resources that
Americans feel it is their right to take? I am afraid that
any of us who speak on these issues will be equally vilified and
silenced (as we have been the last forty years).
If we speak
on the issues of gentrification, poverty, failed schools, and out
sourced jobs. Would Rev. Martin Luther King have to apologize
for his “Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside speech if he were alive today?
Editorial Board Member Lenore
Jean Daniels, PhD - A writer, for over thirty years, of commentary,
resistance criticism and cultural theory, and short stories with
a Marxist sensibility to the impact of cultural narrative violence
and its antithesis, resistance narratives. With entrenched dedication
to justice and equality, she has served as a coordinator of student
and community resistance projects that encourage the Black Feminist
idea of an equalitarian community and facilitator of student-teacher
communities behind the walls of academia for the last twenty years.
Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literatures, with a specialty
in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola
University, Chicago. Click
here to contact Dr. Daniels.
David A. Love
Spoke The Truth
his Philadelphia address, Senator Barack Obama spoke the truth.
And he has taken us where no major political figure has dared
to take us in decades. Obama had a clear choice: either respond
to the attacks against him, out of cold political cynicism, desperation
and blind ambition - and throw his pastor and mentor Rev. Jeremiah
Wright off the cliff (not to mention the African American community,
in the process) - or speak from the heart and make it plain.
He chose the latter.
he provided what this campaign season had been lacking - a sense
of context on the issue of race. Members of the conservative
punditoracy, the talking heads who are dependent upon the 24-hour
news cycle, the 30-second sound byte and the sensationalism of
reality-show faux-journalism, never have visited a Black church.
Rather than sensitize themselves to the inconvenient realities
of racism, they, in their discomfort and false outrage, demanded
Dr. Wright’s head on a platter. The senator refused to participate
in the Willie Hortonization of Rev. Wright, or the demonization
of a rich legacy of political expression in the Black church.
more importantly, Obama redirected the current discussion away
from the unhelpful distractions, the scapegoating and the smokescreens,
and towards the larger fundamentals of inequality and power in
America. He addressed the legacy of oppression that people of
color face, and the economic deprivation that many whites experience,
all against the backdrop of corporate greed and a devotion to
business as usual among the political elites. This is just the
beginning of a conversation that is needed in this country. Obama
is challenging the people to take advantage of a window of opportunity,
and to try a refreshingly new and different approach to this American
Editorial Board Member David A. Love
- A lawyer and prisoners’ rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a contributor
to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune
News Service and In These Times.
Additionally, he contributed to the book, States
of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons
(St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love, a former Amnesty International
UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality
conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional
Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His
blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.
folks are attracted to—even if superficially—anyone
who speaks truth to power, who can “tell the truth and shame
the devil.” I have yet to find a black person to wholly
condemn the sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Our lives, our voices
are muted or silenced every day in so many ways. Even our joys
and successes are eclipsed by louder voices and more powerful
images that propel the perceived worst of a people into the public
domain. This often results in our blanket condemnation of one
another without looking at the historical roots of our oppression.
Or working harder to prove we are worthy of being US citizens
and the rights that come with such a privilege originally conceived
only for white men.
The presidential race has become a metaphor for race relations
in this country: women (Hillary Clinton) and people of color (Barack
Obama) duking it out while white men (John McCain) continuing
their game plan. The issues I want to hear about are still going
on with no response from the presidential candidates. I want to
know about my $30 billion given to bail out Bear Stearns. I want
to know about my $500 billions being pumped into the illegal Iraqi
War. I want to know when I’m gonna get affordable health
care. I want to know…
I’m still waiting for wholesale public condemnations of
pedophile Catholic priests, of racist segregationists like Strom
Thurmond, of US policy to prop up South Africa’s P. W. Botha
and apartheid, of drug head Rush Limbaugh, of drugs and guns runner
Ollie North, of co-conspirator burglar Richard Nixon, and on and
on. White men’s actions, which have destroyed lives both
literally and figuratively, can also guarantee them a coveted
place in history.
Dr. Rev. Floyd Flake likened Obama’s speech on race to Dr.
Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream”
speech. Its eloquence and insights are undeniable even if it failed
to tackle the role of profit as a motivating reason for the ruling
class to maintain racial divisions. The question that remains
is whether Obama’s goal of opening up space for substantive
dialogue about race will end up in America’s graveyard of
Editorial Board Member Jamala
Rogers - Leader of the Organization
for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black
Radical Congress National Organizer. Click
here to contact Ms. Rogers.
I first heard of the criticisms of Pastor Wright and the pressure
on Obama to denounce Wright, I was angry…Angry at the subconscious
(and from some, very conscious) attack on Black America…Angry
that yet another Black man in the public eye would be forced
to don “the Mask” and deny the legitimacy of his community in
order to placate the mainstream. Obama’s speech was masterful…not
perfect, but masterful. He stood his ground and defended the
Black community’s sensibilities in ways which have rarely been
done by mainstream politicians. But he went beyond that and
empathized with the white working class, rooted their anger
in their insecurity, and placed blame for racial divisions on
cynical politicians and media.
the power of a speech lies not its words nor its deliverer.
The power of a speech lies in the strength of the movement that
inspires the speech and is inspired by the speech. Without
such a movement, the spoken words are like the sound of a tree
falling in a forest when no one is around. The challenge for
Black progressives (and all progressives) has been to use this
moment and the incredible energy unleashed by the Obama candidacy
to build a movement for social change that will make a lasting
mark on U.S. society.
Editorial Board Member Steven
Pitts, PhD - Labor Policy Specialist at the UC Berkeley Center
for Labor Research and Education. Click
here to contact Dr. Pitts.
wrote to me right after the speech: "What if we actually
end up with a president who is capable of drawing lessons from
history and conveying them to the nation he leads?" In
that sense Barack Obama's address was unprecedented; as a document
is will be studied and debated long after this election is over,
regardless of who ends up in the White House.
not have to agree with everything he said – or have his
world outlook - to recognize that the oration is a thoughtful,
eloquent and perceptive exploration of the subject of race in
U.S. society today. It is an expression of his faith and a plea
against the cynicism and divisiveness that has become so ingrained
in the nation's politics.
I am not
a member of his political party and no not share its positions
on many critical issues facing us but I would be more than surprised
and pleased if the other prominent politicians exhibited such
responsible thinking and understanding.
some gaps in the content of the speech and a couple of unfortunate
formulations. However, I am certain that many people, across
the racial spectrum, will be moved and encouraged by his social
optimism, especially among the younger generations. And if the
young man's outlook furthers a wide and meaningful discussion
of the issues it will be all to the good.
a serious crisis in this country. One can only hope that in
the coming months the political campaigns take up seriously
the problems weighing down on the insecure and the angry, the
people who are being left out and victimized that Obama describes
and speak out forthrightly in their interest and against those
who seek power through foreign and domestic policies that serve
only to secure wealth and privilege. That is my hope.
Editorial Board Member Carl
Bloice - A writer in San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for
Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare
here to contact Mr. Bloice.
to Barack Obama's March 18, 2008, so-called "Race Speech"
is best summed up in the statement by former U.S. Congresswoman
Cynthia McKinney ('A
Discussion Of Race Worth Having'). It addresses the root
causes and systemic nature of racism in the United States. Cynthia
McKinney, as a well honed and highly experienced Black American
woman from the deep south who was born and raised in this nation,
is eminently qualified to address this matter from and at its
very core. Specifically with regard to the Obama speech, Mckinney
said the following:
am glad that candidate Obama mentioned the existing racial disparities
in education, income, wealth, jobs, government services, imprisonment,
and opportunity. Now it is time to address the public policies
resolve these disparities. Now it is time to have the discussion
on how we are going to come together and put policies in effect
that will provide real hope and real opportunity to all in this
To narrow the gap between the ideals of our founding fathers
and the realities faced by too many in our country today:
That must be the role of public policy at this critical moment
in our country today.
I welcome a real discussion of race in this country and a
resolve to end the long-standing disparities that continue
to spoil the greatness of our country.
I welcome a real discussion of all the issues that face our
country today and the real public policy options that exist
to resolve them. That must be the measure of this campaign
season. For many voters, this important discussion has been too vague or completely non-existent.
Now is the time to talk about the concrete measures that will
move our country forward: on race, war, climate change, the
economy, health care, and education. Our votes and our political
engagement must be about ensuring that fairness truly for
all is embodied in "liberty and justice for all."
Editorial Board Member
- A veteran of the Black Panther
Party, the former Minister of Interior of the Republic of New
Africa, a former political prisoner and the only American to have
successfully self-authored his civil/political rights case to
the United Nations under the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. For more about Larry Pinkney see the book, Saying
No to Power: Autobiography of a 20th Century Activist and Thinker
by William Mandel [Introduction by Howard Zinn]. (Click
here to read excerpts from the book) Click
here to contact Mr. Pinkney.
Obama’s speech was both masterful and courageous. It had
the potential to open up the “Conversation on Race”
that never happened during the Clinton administration. Acknowledging
the elephant in the room - that the US state was built on the
enslaved labor of Africans and African Americans - Obama anchored
the conversation to the promise, not the reality, of the U.S.
Constitution, framing his political campaign within the context
of the broader struggle to realize democratic values. Though
there were limitations, particularly noteworthy was Obama’s
skillful weaving of issues of race and class.
that race is a relationship of power and privilege, Obama asserted
that racial scapegoating is predicated on a zero sum game; that
buying into whiteness has prevented white Americans from dealing
with such critical issues such as the need for universal health
care and the precipitously increasing disparities in wealth,
in which the top one percent owns a greater net wealth than
the bottom 90 percent of all households.
correctly framed white supremacy and racism not as static, but
as dynamic and changing over time. However, this did not happen
on its own, but was a result of a long freedom struggle waged
by millions of African Americans, including Jeremiah Wright.
Obama should have been explicit about those difficult struggles
deep in our historical memories: the lynchings, burnings, fire
hoses and police dogs.
speech was courageous because, within the limitations of U.S.
electoral politics, Obama made the uncommon decision to say
what he thinks, to speak truth to power and to let the chips
fall where they may. But will white America hear? The right
wing is desperately looking for anything to trash this historic
speech. The measure of Obama’s success will be determined
by his ability to create, build and galvanize a grassroots mass
movement that links anti-racism to the practical tasks of governing.
Such a movement will have to bypass the media, pundits, and
politicians who manufacture consent that prevents the majority
of Euro-Americans from acting in their own interests.
Editorial Board Member
Mullings, PhD - Presidential professor of anthropology and Director
of the program in medical anthropology at the Graduate Center,
City University of New York. Click
here to contact Dr. Mullings.
I watched the excerpts of Senator Barack Obama's “Speech on
Race” on the PBS Television's “News Hour” during early evening
March 18, 2008, my first thought was that perhaps only an
African American historic leadership personality could make
such a speech. African American historic leadership figures
such as Frederick Douglass, AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner,
Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Rev.
Martin Luther King, and Fanny Lou Hammer. Why did I think
this? Because Obama's “Speech on Race” was a tale of America's
most unique moral conundrum.
moral-conundrum of a hopeful and buoyant 18th century experiment
in democracy that simultaneously strangled itself, as it were.
Strangled itself via the enslavement of Black people , on
the one hand, and via the post-Civil War era century-long
denial of equal-rights to Black people, on the other hand.
some deep existential sense, then, only an African-American
historic leadership personality could relate this awful tale.
And relate it above all in the mode of Christian social-gospel
humanism, the finest feature of Christian tradition that also
defined other African-American historic leadership personalities
like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Rev. Martin
Luther King. A political leadership discourse-mode that does
not seek to condemn per se, and does not seek cheap everyday
American oneupmanship political-edge purposes.
Obama's “Speech on Race” related the tale of America's unique
moral conundrum so as to carry all Americans' spirits
and vision (White, Black, Latino, Native American, Asian,
Arab American, etc.) on to a higher, superior level of national
and human possibilities. A level of national and
human possibilities that, somewhere in the not-too-distant
future, will enable us Americans to flush-out the corporatist-greed
riddled, industrial-military complex driven, and corrupt political-oligarchy
features thwarting our democracy here in 21st century American
then, is what made Obama's “Speech on Race” an awe-inspiring
American event. The speech was a masterwork thanks to
its moral candor, at the center of which was and-had-to-be
condemnation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's error in letting his
activist-Christian discourse (liberation theology) run wild
on certain occasions, not tempering it with a greater humanist-Christian
the same time, Obama faced the deep moral and systemic rawness
of our country's racial legacy, what he called “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.” He continued
thus: “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.”
this point Obama turned pithily to the words of William Faulkner:
“The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.”
Then, with incredible oratorical savvy, Obama says both that
“We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice
in this country” and informing
America's citizenry today how past-and-present intertwine
still, here in the 21st century, shaping what we are and
thereby telling us where we must still travel. As he put
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 then, 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...- 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. ...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.
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.
I said above, Obama's “Speech on Race” was a masterwork of
American leadership discourse. It relates the tale of America's
unique moral conundrum, elevating all Americans' spirits and
vision on to a higher level of national and human possibilities.
I daresay that nothing associated with the Hillary Clinton
campaign can give us such an awesome event and experience
as Barack Obama's “Speech on Race” - a quintessential American
literary text that it will surely be recognized as, along
with Rev. Martin Luther King's 1963 March-on-Washington address.
Editorial Board Member
Martin Kilson, PhD - Was appointed in 1962 as the first
African American to teach in Harvard College and in 1969 he
was the first African American tenured at Harvard. He retired
in 2003 as Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Emeritus.
His publications include: Political Change in a West
African State (Harvard University Press, 1966); Key
Issues in the Afro-American Experience (Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1970); New States in the Modern World (Harvard
University Press, 1975); The African Diaspora: Interpretive
Essays (Harvard University Press, 1976); The Making
of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African American Intelligentsia
(Forthcoming. University of MIssouri Press); and The
Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1900-2008
here to contact Dr. Kilson.
speech is in a word, powerful! Obama skillfully tackles what
is in many ways a "third rail" issue in U.S. politics
- race. In a country that a few short years ago walked out
of the U.N. Summit on racism, and later failed miserably in
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it seemed like race and
justice were too far from the mainstream discourse to be addressed
openly and honestly. Like the high power third rail in the
railway track, politicians and co-workers alike feared the
consequences of touching issues of race. Obama's speech changes
all that. He elevates this pivotal issue at a critical moment.
Obama gives a striking call to action, encouraging this generation
to do its part - "on the streets and in the courts"
to "narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals
and the reality of our time." Regardless of who wins
in November, Obama's speech forces people in red State, blue
States, and countries around the world to critical examine
personal, systemic, and deeply entrenched racism and commit
themselves to live the change we all can believe in.
actually did a one-two punch in powerful speeches this week.
Tuesday's speech on race was followed the next day by Obama's
most comprehensive speech on foreign policy to date. Wednesday's
speech, on the 5th anniversary of the Iraq war, not only clearly
laid out a plan for getting troops out of Iraq, but focused
on the need for decreasing militarism and increasing diplomacy
and development around the world. Obama also made a clear
call for the end to nuclear proliferation, distinguishing
himself from the other candidates.
together, these speeches give great insight into the vision
and values of a possible Obama presidency. The real test,
however, will be the power of a newly energized movement of
new, young, and more progressive voters to demand that Obama's
powerful rhetoric is translated into actual policies that
can bring the better world we all believe in.
Editorial Board Member
Emira Woods - Co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the
Institute for Policy Studies (Woods is from Liberia and brings
an international viewpoint). Click
here to contact Ms. Woods.