obama and racism

As you may (or may not) know, Barack Obama delivered a speech today in Philly on racism in America. Here’s a link to the New York Time’s full text of the speech. And below are some bits I find particularly interesting. In sum, my belief that Obama is a very smart politician has been reassured, and I am incredibly impressed that he was this honest about an issue that a lot of people in the country choose to ignore. And as a result of that choice, they have no idea how to talk intelligently or honestly about race.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

I think this is one of the most important things to remember in all of this. Rev. Wright is using a particular brand of preaching to a particular audience for a particular effect. Obama sitting in the audience is a world of difference from Obama saying these things or believing them.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

The last line of this is fascinating to me! What he’s saying is that the long crisis of the Middle East is not our unequivocal support of Israel, but because of “radical Islam.” The fact of the matter is that Israel’s occupation is at the center of a lot of the problems in the Middle East. So with this statement, Obama’s reassuring voters that he’s not going to disturb the American status quo by changing our policy toward Israel or the Middle East. I may not agree with his position here, but I have to admit this is a shrewd political move.

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 – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

This and similar statements I think are also pretty on point. Sure, Rev. Wright is pissed off. (And I’d argue he’s got a right to be.) But it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all guilty — even Obama’s freakin’ grandmother — of racial bias. None of us are innocent. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start talking about it and moving forward.

On pages 4 and 5 of the speech, Obama goes on to talk about how there are real and tangible inequalities in this country that effect the way people live their lives, both black and white. I don’t think he labels it as such, but he’s talking about institutional racism, and I think it may be the first time in my life I’ve ever heard a politician talk about race in these terms. He talks about how, through decades (centuries) of discrimination, segregation, and unequal funding, we find ourselves in this place in American history where black folks have limited opportunities and (working class) white folks are out of work because of corporate greed. This is great progressive stuff. But then he goes on to say that part of the solution is self-determination (a “conservative” notion of self-help); that we’ve all got to take it upon ourselves to make this a better country.

I’m going to let this speech sink in. I’m not going to pass full and final judgement on it. But I will say that I’m particularly impressed with his over-all message. And, always, I’m feeling pretty happy that someone as well-spoken and inspired as Obama has come along after the long, ignorant darkness of President Bush.

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