Was Obama's speech enough?

He spoke eloquently and bravely about race but his remarks about his pastor Jeremiah Wright leave many tough questions unanswered.

By Joan Walsh
Published March 18, 2008 10:15PM (EDT)

Barack Obama faced an almost impossible task Tuesday morning when he set out to defuse the Jeremiah Wright scandal with a bold speech on race and politics. Even an orator as great as Obama was hard-pressed to accomplish all he needed to do with a single address.

First and foremost he faced the challenge of addressing the toxic legacy of racism and discrimination in our society -- and our difficulty in discussing it honestly. That challenge was made greater by Obama's very personal decision, as a biracial young man who struggled to forge his personal and political identity in Chicago, to choose Wright's Afrocentric Trinity United Church of Christ as his cornerstone. Now that he's running for president as a racially healing figure, appealing to hope and optimism, Wright's old-time racial anger -- a surreal amalgam of legitimate social commentary, paranoid conspiracy theories and reflexive anti-white rhetoric -- is threatening his campaign.

Obama's stirring talk -- one of the most important addresses on race we've heard in recent memory -- was brave and poignant. But it was also disturbing in places, and may not put the Wright issue completely to rest.

In his speech Obama tried to distance himself from Wright's more outrageous remarks, while honoring and preserving the personal -- and frankly political -- strength he's derived from his affiliation with the church and his spiritual mentor. It was a perilous move for Obama, and it's not clear he succeeded. Describing Wright as "family," Obama compared his incendiary views to the occasional racial insensitivity of his elderly white grandmother: "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me ... 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." It was an intriguing leap, but I didn't buy it. I don't think Obama's elderly grandmother, who still lives in Hawaii and is reportedly too frail to travel, who was a product of her time and place and yet did her best to raise her half-black grandson, deserved to be compared to Wright, a public figure who's built his career around a particularly divisive analysis of American racial politics. It is easily the most tin-eared thing I've ever heard Obama say.

But most of the speech was deeply inspiring. He eloquently countered the profound racial pessimism of Wright's preaching with the optimism of his own story: "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible ... It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one."

And in a political season in which racism and poverty haven't been much on the agenda (at a recent conference in New Orleans I listened as a multiracial audience applauded John Edwards for doing a better job on those issues than Obama or Hillary Clinton), Obama boldly acknowledged the searing legacy of racism, still especially visible in the prison of black poverty:

"Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education ... Legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations ... A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families -- a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us."

It was also rare, and bracing, to hear a presidential candidate who seems to genuinely understand the link between divisive and corrosive black and white racial anger -- that it's grounded in a "zero-sum game" of racial politics, in which America tried to improve the lot of black Americans with social and educational programs and affirmative action just as the living standards of the white working class began to erode. While blacks are legitimately angry at the persistence of discrimination, Obama noted that "most working- and middle-class whites ... worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor." When they look at social programs like busing and affirmative action, or they're called racists for being worried about urban crime, Obama observed, "resentment builds over time."

Both black and white anger are often "counterproductive," distracting attention "from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze," he said, while corporate "greed" and "economic policies that favor the few over the many" are actually to blame. "[T]o wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns," Obama argued, "this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding." Ultimately, for all his bravery and clarity about racism in America, I'm not sure the speech settled questions about how much Obama knew about Wright's divisive proclamations. It is worth saying there are many wonderful black churches in Chicago, and throughout America, with inspiring social ministries, where nobody preaches, as Wright did, that the U.S. directly introduced AIDS to black America "as a means of genocide," where ministers acknowledge the awful history of slavery and persistent racism in this country but can still bring themselves to say "God bless America" and not "God damn America," and where a legitimate critique of American foreign policy stops short of calling 9/11 "a wake-up call that "people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just 'disappeared' as the Great White West went on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns."

Obama's claims to relative ignorance of such statements have always been disingenuous -- from his first visit in 1987, when according to "Dreams From My Father," Wright denounced the Sharpeville massacre and the bombing of Hiroshima, and declared "white folks' greed runs a world in need," Obama knew he was at a radical black church. (It's worth noting that the Wright flap potentially hurts Obama not only by making his race front and center in the campaign, but also his liberalism, which has been obscured by his outreach to Republicans and independents -- and I don't think the speech countered that.) While I don't doubt his campaign's contention that he wasn't in the pews when Wright made some of his more outrageous charges, immortalized on tape and video, it's been hard to believe Obama was unfamiliar with Wright's overall harsh and sometimes paranoid political analysis.

Clearly his account of how much he knew has evolved some. Where a few days ago Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I had not heard [Wright] make such what I consider to be objectionable remarks from the pulpit. Had I heard them while I was in church, I would have objected," on Tuesday his story seemed different: "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."

Yet I acknowledge the bind Obama was in: to go any further in distancing himself from Wright risked a political backlash from the pastor's supporters, as well as charges of inauthenticity and political opportunism. For better or worse, Trinity United has been his church, his rock, for more than 20 years. I may wish he'd chosen a different place for his spiritual grounding, but he's entitled to his choice. And there is absolutely no evidence that Obama shares Wright's worst views.

Today the speech has gotten almost universal raves, but it will be days, even weeks before we know whether it worked to defuse the Wright crisis. The optimist in me thinks this is one of those moments we begin to have our long-overdue national conversation on race. The pessimist says that the flap over Wright's extremist views, in the middle of an already tense presidential contest, is a terrible way to have it. And yet if it were left to us to choose the time and circumstances for painful debates about race, most of us would probably choose never. So here's our moment. Today Obama laid out a racial worldview that tries to challenge the zero-sum thinking that's pitted races against each other for too long. I don't agree with all of it, but he's given us plenty to talk about.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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