Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Race Speech

Well, it's been a mixed week for Obama. On the one hand, he's continued a steady trickle of superdelegates to his side, and he's gained pledged delegates (estimated) in Iowa and California. On the other hand, video of his former pastor, Rev. Wright, began getting heavy, indeed near constant play beginning on FOX News and spreading across all the media and blogosphere.

Well, today I was resting after a working weekend, and I slept through Barack Obama's speech to respond to the issue of Rev. Wright. (Please don't offer me YouTube or other video links; I have dialup. I can't watch them.) I've got a copy of the speech that was leaked beforehand; I'm told that Obama's changes to the speech while giving it were minor. The Obama campaign says that Obama wrote this himself, without aid, over the past two days. I'm inclined to believe it.

For my money, this is a good speech for someone who wants to affect a Presidential campaign... but not so good for a candidate for that office.

The core issue with Obama's relationship with Rev. Wright is this: how could Obama, a man seeking to transcend race, have such a close relationship with an anti-white, anti-American racist? Obama really does not answer this question well- at least, not from a political point of view.

Disclosure time: I was once a born-again, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian. I made my profession of faith when I was nine years old, led by a pastor who I still respect as being honest both in beliefs and dealings with others. (Said pastor drives a log truck to support his large family; he realizes little income from his ministry.) Even after I had a parting of the ways with fundamentalism, I respected that minister for his honesty and integrity.

Then, in 2004, while campaigning for Libertarian candidates here in my home area, I joined a conversation involving this minister and a couple of other people. In this conversation I learned that this minister was a severe homophobic bigot- advocating life imprisonment for homosexuals.

I've done my best to avoid that minister since (although in this tiny a community, absolute avoidance is impossible). I have lost all respect for him, despite his honesty and integrity... because of his happy, smiling, congenial hatred for homosexuality and homosexuals. The man was practically family (and, to most of my family, still is)... but I absolutely could not tolerate his anti-gay bias.

In the speech Obama admits knowing that Wright has preached "remarks that could be considered controversial." He does not, however, call the remarks- accusations that the US is run exclusively by rich white men, that Israel is wholly at fault for the Palestinian conflict, others- he does not call them racist.

He comes as close to an answer to the core question as he ever does here:

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 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.

This is an answer with integrity and love for a man who brought Obama to Christ. I remember quite well the ecstacy of the moment of conversion, when the fears and terrors of the unknown, of what comes after death, were replaced by the comfort of a Savior who guaranteed strength against this world's trials and eternal life after death in Paradise. It's an extreme moment of emotion, and it creates emotional ties which are difficult to sever. When Obama says Wright is like one of his family, I believe it.

But the majority of white America will not.

To most white voters, Obama's effort to denounce the speech but support the speaker is doubletalk. First and foremost, it doesn't answer why Obama waited until now to make this speech- especially when these "controversial statements" were for the most part known to Obama before he announced his run for President, if not before then. Second, it looks like hypocrisy: how can Obama's campaign decry Geraldine Ferraro's accusations that Obama is the "affirmative action" candidate, like she was for VP in 1984, and at the same time continue to associate with a shameless, indeed loudspoken, bigot?

Finally- and this point is being brought up all over the place, and has been ever since this issue comes up- Obama's claim that Wright is like family cuts no ice. You do not get to choose your family. You do, however, get to choose which church you go to, which minister guides you on your spiritual walk. If you do not believe in something a minister says... you reject that minister.

A parable Christ gave backs this up: "If your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand offends you, cut it off. It is better to be blind or lame than for uncleanness to spread and jeopardize your life and soul."

Myself, I agree with the substance behind of most of what Wright said in those clips. Blacks may no longer be lawfully discriminated against, but the effects of past discrimination and the individual prejudices from that period linger. America has propped up dictators, overthrown governments, bombed nations at will and without warning, all in a smug self-righteousness based on the knowledge that those other nations dared never touch us in retaliation. That smugness was wiped off our face on September 11, 2001. And finally, yes, only a black man, immersed in the black subculture, can know what life in America is like for blacks. The rest of us don't have the same knowledge, experience, and cultural programming.

But in his anger Wright's words carried not these messages, clean and plain, but a fury and hatred for all things white.

And Obama's response to this is that he disagreed, that he was embarrassed in the same way his grandmother's unconscious racism sometimes embarrassed him.

And nothing more.

This is bad enough, but Obama then compounded his error:

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect 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. 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.

In other words, rather than allowing the race issue to die, Obama announced his intention to make the discussion of race a major aspect of his campaign henceforth. He went on to point out that whites have legitimate reason to complain of racial injustice, just as blacks and others do... but that does not help him, not at all. To the average white voter, Obama has just taken a stand with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The average white voter won't see the difference between a black man wanting to discuss race and black men wanting to use racial tension for their own benefit. They'll just see a black man talking about race...

... and they'll think, "If this guy gets elected, it's going to be an all-black government. Everything for the blacks, the white man gets shafted."

Yes, there are still a lot of racists, black and white and otherwise, in this country. And they vote.

And they don't all vote Republican.

Today's speech, at best, changes no minds for Obama. It utterly fails to put the Rev. Wright and his sermons behind Obama. It fails to reassure white voters that Obama is not a "black candidate" in the mold of Jesse Jackson.

What it does do is reveal the conflicts of a gentle and principled soul who is not willing to sacrifice a long-time friend and mentor for the sake of political expediency. It reveals the basic philosophy of a man who shares multiple cultures- not merely black and white- in his background. It shares a desire to bring the races together, to tear down the walls between black and white and to give them common cause to build a new America where race is unimportant.

If he weren't a Presidential candidate, it would be a truly great speech.

But as a speech given by a Presidential candidate in response to a crisis, it was not what was needed. If anything, it's more ammunition for his enemies.

I am now very seriously concerned Obama's future... but we'll have to see how the voters react, if at all, to the speech and its coverage.


Camilo Arenivar said...

I don't think it is as bad as you make it. You are still supporting Obama, are you not?

I did shiver when he mentioned race the way he did at times and did get the concern that he was going to be cast in the Jesse Jackson mold, but he clarified it, I felt that he really went the extra mile to make it clear that everyone has suffered from racial tensions, not just black people. His inclusiveness seemed to clearly transcend color lines. Hearing a speech in person vs. reading a leaked copy can make a difference too.

I think Obama will lose a few, maybe those who were looking for a reason to not support him, but I think most people who have been inclined to support Him will take Obama at his word.

As you are.

Kris Overstreet said...

The problem is, it's not sufficient to retain those already inclined to support you.

You also have to persuade at least some of those who don't care, or who are disinclined to support you.

Otherwise you don't get a majority, and you don't win.

Amtep said...

"If you do not believe in something a minister says... you reject that minister."

Is this really true? How many people do that? I would expect that most people put up with some amount of craziness from their ministers.