Obama, Race and Rev. Wright

If you’ve heard the sound bytes of Rev. Wright and been rightly offended, you should also listen to Obama’s speech addressing these comments specifically and the complicated issue of race in our country in general.

This will come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I thought his speech this morning was exceptional and I agree completely with commentators who are calling it the most instructive and important speech on race in a generation.

Obviously, Jeremiah Wright’s words are inexcusable. They are not the words of a prophet speaking truth to power and encouraging his nation to live up to its promise. Obama speaks to this towards the end of his speech:

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke
about racism in our society.

"It’s that he spoke as if our society was
static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country
that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the
highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black;
Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably
bound to a tragic past.

"But what we know — what we have seen – is that
America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we
have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what
we can and must achieve tomorrow."

But if Wright’s words are not prophetic, then they are hateful; and how is it that someone with a message so diametrical to the message of unity that Obama has been campaigning on could be such a close and trusted advisor?

"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.

"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.

"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."

This is the sort of reasonable, rational and nuanced response to a complex issue that is almost completely absent from American politics. If Barack wanted to be safe, he’d have come out with a handful of six second sound bytes which summarily disavowed any association whatsoever with Rev. Wright and denied through the General Election in November any previous knowledge of his controversial views.

With any luck, he’d manage 270 electoral votes. Yipee.

But he demonstrated exactly what his supporters have admired in him all along; that he is a refreshing change from business as usual, willing and able to speak with honesty and clarity about problems that are all too often simplified, stereotyped, and removed from reality.

On the one hand, this problem has certainly taken a lot of the wind from the campaign’s sails and I worry only a little bit that it may give Hillary the window she’s been waiting for.

On the other, one of the many positive things to come out of this whole mess has been an opportunity for him to show his mettle by speaking a brave word to a country who needs to hear it. I’ve been waiting for days to hear this speech, and despite how committed to this campaign I’ve been I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t had a few doubts. But today, more than ever, I am as convinced as I possibly can be that Barack Obama should be the next President of the United States.

4 thoughts on “Obama, Race and Rev. Wright”

  1. B. Rhea, thanks for this post. I agree–this was a great speech. His speech made me remember scenes from Crash. Just like that movie, he seemed to be very candid, bold, and daring. And you’re right–this whole ordeal has given me another chance to see him as a real person with integrity and not just another candidate who will say anything to get into office. Oh, and I love that he’s never shy about his faith.

  2. “reasonable, rational and nuanced response to a complex issue that is almost completely absent from American politics” – Exactly! Obama’s campaign has been so incredibly refreshing, and this is indeed a perfect example. And the media is now crying that he’s making race an “issue” when the focus should be elsewhere. I think what he did will open up dialogue among all Americans so that we can, in fact, discuss issues as a whole nation, recognizing differences but focusing on commonalities.

  3. I thought you might be interested in some videos with context to the Wright quotes. In fact, in the one I’m watching at the moment, he actually praises some of the work our government has done…and then of course condemns it as well.
    I like his quote from Malachi 3:6, God doesn’t change. And he contrasts that with governments.
    One quote from the end of the video…”The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African American descent.” I’m actually not as troubled by the quote as I would be had I only heard the sound bite they play on the news all the time.
    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/3/20/224958/631/841/481227

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