Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Barack's Bravery

As previously noted, I thought Barack Obama gave a very good speech: Philosophically and structurally, it's one of the better addresses a modern black politician has ever delivered; more significantly, it is one of the more thoughtful speeches from any one individual running for president in quite some time.

While he did not denounce Rev. Jeremiah Wright personally, Obama upbraided the anger coming from Wright's generation -- an anger which, "is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change."

He also calls "legitimate" the sentiments of whites who resent affirmative action (though it would have been nice for him to actually call it that by name) and crime. While it's easy to say, "Well, of course, they are legitimate," not many black leaders admit that.

One major rhetorical point that Obama made seems, to me, to have been misunderstood. My friend Rich Lowry -- among others -- castigates Obama for lumping Wright's rhetoric with the sometimes hurtful comments of his white grandmother. For one thing, while race is an almost intractable public policy problem, it manifests itself in minute personal interactions and various slights on a daily basis. What is wrong with bringing up a personal anecdote on how racial insensitivity can try even the tightest of loving bonds?

Aside from that, Obama actually links his white grandmother as much with "the black community" as he does with Wright:

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping,
screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

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.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
There is a triangle of relationships here -- the black community, Rev. Wright and Obama's grandmother. He admits unbreakable bonds to all three -- regardless of their faults. It's fascinating to hear this reflection of sentiment (yes, I recognize that this is a political speech and we can be cynical about the motives of each line) dismissed as an example of "throwing his grandmother under the bus."

Why isn't recognizing "bitterness and bias" an example of "throwing the black community under the bus"? Obama is very direct in noting the failings, not merely of Wright, but of the broader black community itself. He notes one personal anecdote of white insensitivity and critics want to jump on that line as an example of insincerity. Actually, this underscore Obama's point: He says he can't divorce himself from Wright, the black community or his white grandmother: My conservative friends seem only interested in "rescuing' Obama's grandmother from the implications of this argument.

Politically, I'm not sure how this speech plays. Obama has excelled so far in this campaign by not assiduously not talking explicitly about race. He has allowed his story to speak for him -- while he places race as one of many potentially divisive things which Americans have to bridge. The Clinton campaign has wanted to make Obama the "black" candidate -- as evidenced by the South Carolina primary. But, from the Ohio debate -- where Louis Farrakhan "appeared" to Geraldine Ferraro and now Wright -- Obama has been forced to respond to questions/charges over race. Ironically, all of the controversies actually involve statements uttered by third-parties. To the extent that he has to talk about these things, he is not talking about what he wants. Over the last two days, Hillary Clinton has been able to get into the news cycle on Iraq and the economy, whereas all Obama coverage has focused on race.

That said, a candidate is often judged by how he responds to adversity. He also can be judged if he manages to deliver something that is out of the ordinary. This speech falls into both categories. And the full results of it won't be truly ascertained for weeks. At the time, Romney's "Mormon" speech was seen as something of a game-changer. Given how his candidacy ultimately fared, it's questionable as to how successful it was. Furthermore, it is open as to whether a lengthy, thoughtful composition can effectively counter the multiply-aired/You Tubed harsh-sounding words of Jeremiah Wright.

The usual suspects will head to their respective corners. Liberal Democrats will, of course, love Obama's speech. His supporters previously nervous about their candidate in the wake of the Wright revelations will stay on board and see their candidate in an even stronger light. Democratic superdelegates will remain calm.

Many conservatives who thought Obama was full of it will be even more convinced. Newt Gingrich called it "fundamentally dishonest" (one of those oh-so-rare times when I disagree with my former boss). However, the glee with which Rush Limbaugh declares that Obama has become "the candidate of race" is rather disturbing. It may be just to criticize Obama for not condemning Wright earlier -- or not abandoning his church -- but exulting in Obama's de facto "ghettoization" is nothing short of bizarre. So, we want more black "candidates of race", right, Rush? Great.

Of course, the entire affair is rather interesting: This may be the first time a candidate has been "caught", not for something he or someone directly working for the campaign has done or said -- or his wife -- but for what his pastor has said. While Obama has made the need for reconciliation across racial, ethnic and ideological lines (perhaps too naively), it's hardly the case that he has been perpetually condemning America's racial history and demanding a purity of thought in everyone's personal relationships. Yet, here we are.

This was a brave speech. Obama could have used this as an opportunity to "Sister Souljah" Jeremiah Wright. He could have condemned the man as well as his words. But, he didn't. He put Wright in the context of history -- American, the black church and Obama's personally. Some may say that the description of black churches is just a poetic version of the old T-shirt slogan, "It's a black thing; you wouldn't understand." But it's not.

I wasn't raised in American black culture. I've attended mostly white churches. However, the few black churches to which I have attended aren't different just in their degree of worship; they are different in kind. The sermons are longer; the interactivity is more obvious; music is an essential element -- and they are spirited. And politics is a greater part of the sermons than they are in most white congregations I've attended. And there is an historical basis for that: The black church was the one area, from slavery and through Jim Crow, where their community could be a community without fear of the Powers That Be.

The risk Obama is taking is that this, uh, revelation will brand him -- for all of his inclusive rhetoric -- as part of that eternal Other who can't ever truly be assimilated into American society (that seems to be the subtext of Limbaugh's glee). Obama has presented himself as the epitome of the assimilated American black man. Ironically, his refusal to denounce a man who clearly, in many ways, took the place of Obama's father who abandoned him may turn the candidate into the "black" he has been trying to "transcend."

ADDENDUM: Andrew Sullivan links to blogger David Schraub's assessment of Jeremiah Wright as a "Black Conservative" (the capitalization of the phrase is important to Schraub's analysis). As Andrew says, it is a fascinating take and one that I'm going to have to contemplate for some time (in an earlier piece, Schraub ponders Clarence Thomas in a similar light). However, one passage jumps out that suddenly makes one Wright comment slightly less completely objectionable:

Black Conservatism holds obvious parallels with traditional paleo-conservatism (hence the name): the mistrust of outsiders, looking out for one's own people first (and concurrently, self-reliance over dependency), lack of faith in high-minded moralism and ideology. But since African-Americans are a minority people in the United States, some other qualities are grafted on which are less familiar to majoritarian conservatism: most notably, the nation is considered to
be an outsider, making the ideology significantly less inclined towards patriotism than the average White conservative. The "anti-American" elements, normally associated as a far-left belief, actually are a closer relative to conservative xenophobia: the analogy would be White American Conservative: United Nations :: Black American Conservative : United States. Each represents a distant governmental body, run by outsiders, which represents a putative threat
to group autonomy.
The mistrust of authority, often characterized as a left-belief, becomes a right-ward belief once its conceptualized as mistrust of foreign authority -- within their own communities, Black Conservatives often create very rigid hierarchal models (particularly on gender issues). Ultimately, though, what Black Conservatives preach is independence. (Emphasis added)
In this context, Wright's statement that 9/11 was an example of "America's chickens coming home to roost" is actually not that dissimilar from the critique of U.S. foreign policy by another apostate "conservative" -- Ron Paul. While hardly the majority viewpoint on the causes of 9/11, this is most decidedly not a notion dreamed up by conspiracy theory nuts like the 9/11 Truthers (though Wright has occasionally veered into conspiracy theory areas when it comes to AIDS).

(Of course, if Wright were any kind of student of history -- and the apparent fan of Louis Farrakhan that he purports to be -- he should have realized that the "chickens coming home to roost" line is fraught with peril. It's the same phrase -- delivered two weeks after John F. Kennedy's assassination -- that began Malcolm X's falling out with the Nation of Islam.)

UPDATE: The Post's editorial on Obama's speech and my colleague Charles Hurt's take.

UPDATE II: In returning some love to Virginia Postrel, I have to commend her for putting in her post on the speech a phrase that stood out to me when I heard it, but forgot to mention above: In listing the impact of segregation, Obama noted, "blacks were excluded from unions." Exactly. Now, as a conservative, I would have loved for him to have taken that further and made mention of the impact of teachers unions on underperforming inner-city public schools. But we can't have everything. Good for Obama for including historic union racism and good for Virginia for remembering that line.

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