Speech in the City of Brotherly Love

It’s not often in America that a rich, white military man and a rich, white wife of a former president hang on a black man’s every word. It’s not often that a presidential candidate can call the Constitution stained but endowed with infinite future promise, can call this country’s citizens racist but their fears founded. It’s not often that the specter of American race relations is raised in a national forum outside of begrudging, guilty obligations for “national healing” following spectacle or tragedy.

So why-oh-why did Barack Obama, arguably the frontrunner for the highest office in the land, devote an entire speech to the imminently divisive subject of race?

Some may say it was an endgame necessity, an emergency damage-control scenario enacted after the now-ubiquitous comments by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ, whose variously incendiary remarks -- claiming America deserved what it got on 9/11, suggesting the HIV virus was a means of genocide against people of color, proclaiming God damn, not bless, America -- gained him national attention as the radical who married Barack and Michelle and baptized Sasha and Malia Obama.

And Obama did address at length Wright’s comments, voicing his staunch condemnation of this inherently “distorted” view of America. “Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems,” he proclaimed. All such sentiments were expected and necessary, all required of a politician fighting the wave of YouTubes and 24/7 political punditry.

But Obama went further. Instead of distancing himself from the man and his words, he brought them both close. He wrapped Wright’s worldview into the very fabric of his campaign, not as a positive or a mere mea culpa of faulty judgment, but as an endemic indication of the deeply-rooted and constantly-seething prejudices in the country. Wright, Obama claimed, is the truest and saddest exemplar of the greatest nation’s greatest nightmare, whose warped analysis of American (read: white) arrogance is wrong but honest, more important for why it was said than what was said. “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” Obama said.

You have to be careful, as a presidential candidate, talking about imperfections in the union. It’s the invisible elephant in the room, an elephant keenly stepped around by GOP pachyderms, avoided by nominating a 71-year-old white war hero to go along with the collection they have in stock. But when you’re a first-term senator with a white mother and a Kenyan father, a man who did inhale, a Christian who associates with religious leaders who may or may not hate America, and a politician whose greatest strength lies in his eloquent and compelling oratory, the risk and the reward are one in the same.

Obama spoke of the anger that fills oppressed and depressed African-American communities in the same breath as he spoke of the frustration and anxiety of the white working- and middle-class, who, as he noted, have never felt privileged by their race in an increasingly difficult world. “...The anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races,” he said, adding to the maelstrom the fears of white Americans whose unaddressed resentments “...have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.” At points, Obama seemed to admit that the prospects of any progress remain daunting, with race best served as electoral exploitation rather than real political or social progress.

Obama reiterated earlier statements he'd made that called race a “distraction” in the campaign, a roadblock to true progress and frank discourse about the pressing issues of the country, but for the first time he admitted that the issue of race is a distraction that won’t ever go away until addressed. Indeed, race in America might be seen as one of the singular issues around which all other distractions draw strength.

Obama spoke about race without race being synonymous with, or a polite euphemism for, white-on-black racism. Race as a qualification was aptly filled with numerous gradations and tones, sharpened by the failings of individuals on both sides -- Geraldine Ferraro and Wright serving in the immediate -- but tempered by the ultimate truth that just as our history is inextricably linked with slavery and prejudice, so, too, does democracy hold the inextricable and sometimes improbable opportunity to lumber towards equality.

Perhaps it is Obama’s uniqueness as a candidate or simply the current saturation point in American politics that makes this call to improve the country somehow different. Perhaps the veneer of “we can do better” has finally become the much more essential “we must do better.” Today saw a stark contrast of temporal politics: John McCain tramping through the Middle East, reaffirming his devotion to an ongoing, intractable war of religious zealotry, the Supreme Court debating a change in interpretation of the Second Amendment’s longstanding guarantee of firearms, Hillary Clinton hauling up yesterday’s victim Valerie Plame to stand on stage in a different part of Philadelphia, Barack Obama admitting imperfections in himself, his associates, his country and its Constitution.

Now, it is a long way to the end of the Democratic race, a longer way to November and an even longer way to any of the answers to questions raised today. But it’s worth noting Obama’s claim that we may have reached the end of the beginning -- on a Tuesday in 2008, when a black man who could be president spoke about race in Philadelphia with condemnation and hope alike -- doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all. -- Joe Horton

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun