Race speech reconsidered

In March 2008, Barack Obama gave himself an extended audition for president with "A More Perfect Union," his now-famous speech on race delivered in Philadelphia. It was not something Obama wanted to do; up to that point, race was something the black candidate had avoided talking about in any terms other than hopeful and optimistic. But Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had alarmed the public when media outlets unearthed a few clips from his old sermons at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago -- "God damn America" was the most quoted of several sentiments that expressed anger about the country's unequal treatment of its black citizens.

The immediate suspicion and condemnation of Wright cast a pall over Obama at a critical point in his historic effort to capture the Democratic nomination. Simmering questions about Obama's racial affiliation suddenly reignited -- was he black like Wright, i.e., black and angry? When minimizing the issue didn't make it go away, Obama decided to take the opposite tack. The speech was a gamble: By talking about race in the biggest, most historical and yet most intimate terms possible, the controversy over Wright finally might be reduced to the red herring that it really was.

The gamble worked, in the sense that Obama went on to win the primary and then the general election. But did the speech work? Was it the watershed moment in race relations that relieved pundits almost universally agreed that it was? Despite its own deferential attitude, "The Speech: Race and Barack Obama's 'A More Perfect Union,' " a new essay collection edited by Vanderbilt University professor and cultural critic T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, offers answers that are a lot more complex than the unvarnished praise Obama's oration has gotten so far.

That's partly because the 13 contributors of diverse backgrounds and vocations -- among them sociologist William Julius Wilson and columnist Derrick Jackson -- recognize the basic folly in assuming the historic impact of something that is only a year old. They also recognize that race matters are too emotionally and politically far-reaching to be redirected by a single speech; the highest praise is therefore restrained, while those presenting the greatest criticism also concede that Obama, as a black man and presidential candidate, had little margin of candor to work with. Overall, "The Speech," though somewhat uneven, is a rich landscape of opinion on the state of race and Obama's singular relationship to it. Last year, we simply couldn't see these arguments in the heat of the campaign; now they're coming into focus.

Biblical scholar Obery M. Hendricks Jr. has the most powerful entry, the provocatively titled "A More Perfect (High-Tech) Lynching." Hendricks argues in scrupulous and, yes, angry detail that Obama's address threw not only Wright under the bus but also the whole black experience in America, an experience that has been shaped by racism in every age. Hendricks tracks the subtle contradictions running through Obama's bold statements. For example, Obama talks plainly about white culpability in the race divide. But he winds up equating that white culpability with black anger and paranoia, asking both sides to slough off the bad feelings. However politically necessary or even personally sincere this is, it's also disingenuous.

Hendricks also makes clear his disgust with the role of the media in taking apart Wright and forcing Obama to make the speech at all. He tells the story of Sam Hose, a black man lynched in 1899. The Southern papers quickly turned an account of Hose acting in self-defense into one of a crazed, vengeful Negro who had killed a white man out of pure hate. The story snowballed into a public call for action that could end only with Hose's grisly murder by a mob. Hendricks' point is that the Wright story was fueled by a similarly frenzied belief that a black man (a friend of a would-be president, also black) had violated the established racial order by allegedly espousing hatred against whites -- never mind that Wright was a Vietnam veteran and a pastor well-regarded by clergy of all colors and faiths; the media did not rest until he was permanently discredited.

The speech did nothing to stop the discrediting. Indeed, Hendricks says, the speech aided and abetted it by describing Wright and his generation as bitter and angry: Obama called the pastor's de-contextualized sound bites a "profoundly distorted view of this country that sees white racism as endemic and a view that elevates what's wrong with this country over what we know is right with America." But that contradicts Obama's own assertion in the speech that racism and its legacy of inequality are alive and well today. Worse, he sets the patriot trap -- he implies that if you don't believe in American goodwill, especially racial goodwill, whatever your experiences to the contrary, you'll be left behind. You won't be on the bus at all.

Sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman gives a wonderful analysis of the speech as a modern jeremiad that draws on the European, American and African American traditions. Early Puritans preached a jeremiad that saw new white settlers as chosen people, thus establishing the idea of American exceptionalism. Later on, the black jeremiad critiqued America as a land that had failed to live up to that exceptionalism by not granting full justice to all of its people. In his speech, Obama sought to bring the two traditions together in a tricky triangulation -- one of his hallmarks -- but with limited success. Smitherman is circumspect. After describing how the black jeremiad typically gave whites explicit instructions on how to redress black grievances and therefore make good on its own promise, she writes that "Obama chooses not to go there, leaving the rhetorical pathos (appeal to emotion) of earlier black jeremiads aside." Obama, instead, opted for reason and deliberation -- perhaps his only choice, given the consternation about the emotional Wright.

And therein is the real problem with the speech. Cool and eloquence notwithstanding, its purpose was not to bring us all together but to convince whites that Obama meant no harm (that he has "goodwill"). Did the speech have merit? A certain independence? Of course. Obama using himself and his own life as a challenge to the national obsession with separation of the races was dramatic; so was the painful anecdote about his beloved white grandmother who harbored racist feelings toward black men like himself. But I didn't forget what forces were really in charge in Philadelphia on that day. Obama seized the moment of truth and, for those 40 minutes, was in admirable control. But those are small potatoes compared with the racial hostility and imbalance that put him at the podium and that have been driving the country a long, long time.

While it may be true that "the political effect of his speech is that it established him as an honest broker of race," as Derrick Jackson concludes in the last part of his three-part contribution, the question remains, a broker for whom? That's the question we rarely have the audacity to ask, and to keep asking.


Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

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