The Race Speech

Posted by Katherine | March 19, 2008 – 3:00 pm
Independence Hall with storm clouds
Independence Hall [Runs With Scissors / Flickr]

Barack Obama spoke about race yesterday in Philadelphia. This morning, rants aside, the “regular-person” blogosphere mostly praised Obama for nuance and bravery and uncommon frankness. We’re still looking for a thoughtful but largely negative critique — so send us a link if you find one!

Here’s an interesting example of the positive responses: Jared Dunn, an MIT lab manager in Boston, says in a comment on a post by Kevin C. Murphy (a history Ph.D. student at Columbia University):

I’m through doubting him. He takes what should be a crisis for his campaign and turns it into an opportunity to have an honest national conversation about race, and then proceeds to lay out and embody a compelling framework for how to do exactly that. Are you kidding me?

Compare that to what Kerry did with his own complex but very relevant personal narrative about Vietnam. As soon as he was attacked on it, he ran away and let his opponents define him with smears. It could have been his greatest strength, but he failed to stand up and unapologetically tell his story and link it to our story as a country. And so he lost. As Gore lost when he ran away from who he was and what he cared about most, and countless other Democrats have lost and lost when they’ve done the same. Obama could lose too of course, but if he does, it won’t be out of timidity and incompetence.

Whatever you think of Obama, the speech sure suggests that, should he win the Democratic nomination, he wouldn’t wither under Repulican attacks.

Field Negro (aka Wain Bennett), an attorney in Philadelphia, sees the speech as a positive sign that Obama is now running openly as a black man:

Today, finally, the “O” man became a “black” candidate. I even think he pulled the good Reverend from under the bus a little bit (Although I think his shoelaces might still be stuck). The “O” man embraced his race, and confronted some of A-merry-ca’s racial demons. And this all happened just a few blocks away from where the concept of liberty was supposedly crafted in these divided states of A-merry-ca. He gave it a stones throw away from a bell that is as cracked as some of the bigots attacking him. Fittingly, it was right in front of the U.S. Mint, because his speech was on the money.

The “O” man had to know it was coming, and it seemed that he was ready (The shit about his racist maternal grandmother was classic). He said all the right things, and he tried to appeal to the best part of our nature. He even came at his own peeps a little. But it’s cool “O” man, we get it, this isn’t about us, you have our vote. This is about letting the rest of A-merry-ca know that you don’t bite. “Ahh come on field, he had to say what he did, it was a calculated political move and nothing else” Yes, but he could have kept up the whole I am the Tigerlike politician act, but he didn’t. He stepped up to the plate, and talked about race and what it has meant to this country. I have been killing the guy since day one to get just a little real, so when he does, I am going to give him credit.

Black and white handshake over chess
[C.A. Mullhaupt / Flickr]

Despite the accolades, a number of compelling questions and reservations cropped up. Liberal blogger dday from California wonders whether the speech will really be enough to counter the political spin:

Conservatives are already firing up the wedges again in reaction to this speech. I heard Rush say that Obama has “now become a racial candidate,” I guess because he said the word race. Their true nature is going to be coming out in this reaction; the fear, the anger, the desperation, the racism. Obama’s speech is large and has a lot of nuance that won’t play in soundbites. I don’t really care to get into the politics of it, but I think we’ll see in the ultimate result whether we’re a nation that still pays attention to these petty concerns and wedges, or whether we can judge a man on the content of his character.

It’s interesting, given this concern about soundbites taken out of context, that many bloggers posted the speech transcript in its entirety.

Another gripe: that Obama couldn’t help himself from slipping into campaign mode. Junichi Semitsu, who teaches at the University of San Diego School of Law, feels he pandered to the Jewish lobby:

One way in which Obama clearly does not represent change is the way in which he, like virtually all other American politicians, goes out of his way to demonstrate his undying allegiance to Israel.

In his speech today, he said the following of Rev. Wright’s remarks:

“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.”

I have no beef with his criticism of Rev. Wright’s remarks. But he is clearly doing more than distancing himself from Rev. Wright — he is, again, using the opportunity to demonstrate his (and the Democratic Party’s and the Republican Party’s) unwavering allegiance to Israel. […]

Given that Obama is constantly forced to deal with ignorant whispers that he is secretly Muslim, I understand his need to firmly renounce the “hateful ideologies of radical Islam” and to reach out to the Jewish community. Anti-Semitism is a real, ugly, and major problem here and abroad. But so is anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, and I wish Obama were willing to take those on, as well.

A major speech that ties together our history of racism with our current foreign policy?

That would have made for a true watershed moment.

Overall, though, this comment (no permalink available) from athospaco — on the Obama campaign’s YouTube version of the speech — represents the tone of much of the online chatter:


He will stand by the Constitution and the country like he stood by his imperfect pastor. With conviction and clarity. And a hell of a lot of class.

As of 2:37 pm today, that particular version of the speech had been viewed 1,230,086 times and had generated 1305 comments.


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