Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

I watched the speech, and I thought it was really good, and did most of what it supposed to do, at least in terms of the Rev. Wright controversy. I believe Obama effectively repudiated the hateful and divisive rhetoric of his former pastor, while doing his best to explain the complex relationship he has with him:

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.

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.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of 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 or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all. Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

And this:

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.

And this part here:

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.

I think Obama is saying that Wright's views reflected in this sermons are wrong and hateful, but one must understand the background they issue from--and this is important, they do not reflect the totality of the man. Wright is family, and he cannot totally walk away from his family.

You should read the whole thing here. (HT: Tom Maguire and Drudge.)

As I said, the speech was pretty good, and dealt with this issue the best way he could have. As a black man, I have experience dealing with the wide range of views Obama talks about. It's important for us to continue to move forward, face the challenges, and heal the wounds that still remain, even after all the progress that has been made.

Politically, I still feel he may face questions about his judgment, (namely why he let his children attend, and the fact that many of Wright's statements weren't so much but race, but vicious attacks on American foreign policy) but at the end of the day I think he did a pretty good job. I'm in agreement with the view that those who choose not to vote for Obama over this probably weren't going to anyway, and those who have a preconceived negative view of Obama aren't going to be swayed by this speech.

Ross Douthat has a really insightful piece on this:

Barack Obama’s long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright isn’t significant because it suggests that Obama shares Wright’s more controversial views; I have no doubt that he does not. It’s significant because it undercuts an important aspect of Obama’s promise as a politician: Namely, his potential to break the mold of American politics, by transcending both the recent templates for African-American political activity (grievance-based shakedown politics on the one hand, Afrocentric separatism on the other) and the larger red-blue polarization in the country as a whole.

He needs to reject his minister's politics, in other words, in the name of a new generation of African-Americans, while simultaneously suggesting that the bigotries are not necessarily the only measure of the man, and that the appropriate response to Wright's noxious words isn't outrage but rather the mix of pity and tolerance that a white American might feel toward a racist parent or grandparent, who deserves to be loved and accepted in spite of their retrograde opinions.

Could he actually say all this? Can a half-white, half-Kenyan politician presume to speak for the experience of black America? Can a man who clearly loves his pastor go so far down the road toward attacking him outright? Can a black man persuade white Americans that they should feel toward a ranting black preacher the way they might feel toward their own grandparents? I doubt it. But I'd love to see him try.

Shelby Steele goes a somewhat different route, and deals with Obama's whole candidacy. As to "the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap," Steele in effect says that it is. He's totally wrong, much like Geraldine Ferraro was wrong, but his piece deserves a read. (HT again to Tom Maguire)

UPDATE: The always-on-point John McWhorter gets it right. (HT: Sully, who gets it right as well.)

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