While on vacation, I missed a few things. The first, and biggest (in terms of media coverage), issue included the lovely musings of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and Sen. Barack Obama’s subsequent “landmark” speech on race, America and politics.
Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics in America, given on Tuesday at the National Constitution Center here in Philadelphia, was very nice. It reminded me of the speech given by Mitt Romney on religion in America, though while Mitt’s was one of the greatest speeches I’ve heard in recent memory, it was not given nearly the swooning reviews that Obama’s speech garnered from the mainstream media. That, of course, is to be expected.
While I disagree with Obama on a number of issues, there are a few things about the Illinois senator that I do like: one, he routinely speaks about the greatness of America (though at times his actions and his wife directly contradict his eloquent words); two, he occasionally slips into strange territory for a liberal in saying that Americans need to help themselves with regard to certain aspects of life–including family structure, parenting and race relations–rather than wait patiently and with an open checkbook for the government to step in.
Obama touched briefly upon that self-help philosophy, and indeed identified that the racial gap is something that needs to be addressed openly in America. On that account, Obama is right.
Where he went wrong in the address–policy issues aside–was failing to address certain aspects of the controversy surrounding him and Rev. Wright.
Wright is a bigot. He embodies everything that is wrong with race relations in this country — railing against inequality while using hate speech to make his point. He is overtly anti-American, despite his past service in the Marine Corps. Obama, given issues which have arisen in the past, did not do enough to explain his relationship in the way it needed to be explained.
Barack Obama’s patriotism, regardless of how right or wrong it is to do so, has come under question before. There was the issue with the flag pin, then the issue with his failure to say the Pledge of Allegiance. If anything, Obama needed to explain, in detail, why and how his views differ from those of his pastor.
For twenty years, Barack Obama sat in his pew and listened to Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the pulpit. For twenty years–twenty formative years, from age 26 to 46–he was surrounded by this divisive and anti-American perspective on the world. Wright married Barack and Michelle Obama. Wright baptized Barack and Michelle Obama’s children. Are we not to assume that, even by passive osmosis, some of Wright’s message and perspective might have seeped in to the Obamas’ own view of the world around them?
It certainly seems that way for Michelle, who admitted that her husband’s success brought about the only time in her adult life that she could be proud of America. Perhaps if America hadn’t developed HIV/AIDS to wage war against the black population or perhaps if America didn’t kill so many people overseas in wars, as Rev. Wright has said in the past, she would have had reason to be proud before this time.
Barack Obama did an excellent job on Tuesday, but he needed to do more. In his speech, which was indeed very eloquent, Barack Obama failed to explain why, if he disagreed so much with what Wright said, he didn’t just get up and leave. Instead, Obama told us about his racist, white grandmother, insinuating that he couldn’t choose his own grandmother just as he couldn’t choose Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Yes, we can choose our church, our synagogue, our mosque. Yes, we can choose who and what we listen to on Sunday or Saturday mornings. None of us, however, can choose our grandparents, but each and every one of us can choose where we worship. I am Catholic, and if I don’t like what is coming from behind the altar or in the pulpit, I go elsewhere (and I already have changed parishes in such a manner). If I were a Muslim, and the Imam at my mosque was spewing radical jihad-ish hate speech, I’d go elsewhere. Obama, in his situation, should have spoken up, or simply stood up and left.
In his own defense, Obama first said that he never heard such remarks from Rev. Wright. Then, he said that he wasn’t in church when such remarks were made. Now, he said that he didn’t want to approach Rev. Wright because he was on the verge of retirement in 2007. Well, what about the comments made in 2001 about September 11th and American action in World War II?
Now, I am not saying that Obama is himself racist. I have seen NOTHING but evidence to the contrary. However, this race is going to be about race whether he likes it or not.
The extremely cynical parts of me say that the good portions of this speech better cleared the way for Barack Obama to distance himself, in the future and in the general election, from cries of racial intolerance made on his behalf. For example, instead of merely denouncing or repudiating a Rev. Jackson or Sharpton when they shout “RACISM!” in response to some question about Obama’s policies put forth by Hillary Clinton or John McCain, Obama will be able to point back to this speech and say, “Gee whiz, isn’t this the very type of thing I spoke out against” while reaping the benefit regardless. The hopeful parts of me say that this is a monstrous step in the right direction, and that regardless of the outcome in November, we will indeed look back not necessarily on this speech but on Obama’s candidacy in the turning point in how race figures in to politics in America.
I certainly hope that it is the latter. Regardless, Obama said what needed to be said–not necessarily with regard to the relationship between he and Rev. Wright, but about race relations as a whole–and he should be applauded for it.