3/19/2008

Obama's Speech on Race

Race is an issue that I don't often talk about. Like a lot of white men, I tend not to think of myself in racial terms (or gender terms for that matter) while I generally try my best to treat everyone as equals regardless of the color of their skin or any other physical characteristic.

The metaphor of navigating a minefield here is as apt as it is frequently invoked. When I have discussed matters related to race in the past, I have no doubt that I've made an occasional misstep, uttering remarks which may have been racially insensitive. I honestly regret the offense I may have caused anyone at those times.

Despite the dangers involved, it would be a mistake never to speak about race, because it is clearly something that plays a significant role in American life, whether we like it or not. This is why Barack Obama's speech on the issue, an extremely powerful statement that did not shy away from tackling it head on, is so important and so necessary.

I strongly encourage you, if you have not already done so, to take a look at the speech, or at least read the transcript. I will offer my thoughts as I do in this forum, but I think it best for people to form their own opinions by going to the source without the distorting influence of pre-given interpretations by others. Of course we always carry with us preconceptions and prejudices, but there is nevertheless a value in trying to approach things with an open mind.

From here on, I will assume the reader has experienced the speech firsthand.

As I perused the Internet after reading it, looking at editorials and analyses as well as comments on these pieces from anonymous netizens, I found that most people's responses fell into one of two groups. In one, there was the expression of a kind of ecstatic hope, an almost religious feeling of being uplifted and deeply touched by his sentiments. The other consisted of vociferous anger directed at perceived contradictions accompanied with disgust that so many people could be "duped" by Obama's rhetoric. Given such strong and opposite reactions, what are we to make of this speech?

It should go without saying that one's prior feelings about Obama play a significant role here. Those who support his candidacy will almost invariably find his words inspirational, while those who oppose him will more than likely be upset and dismissive. These two groups hear in Obama's oration what they want and expect to hear, and by and large would react in a similar way even if it had taken any number of other forms.

(This is not to suggest that there aren't people who defy these expectations. A substantial number of people offered good reasons to justify their emotional responses. In taking up the stance I am now, I'm writing as though I did not fall into either of these groups. This is not entirely true, however, because I decided a few weeks ago, albeit with some reluctance, to back Obama. This speech put a number of my worries about him to rest, but I can't deny that I went into the experience with a generally positive outlook.)

At any rate, the most informative responses, I believe, will be those coming from people who, up until now, did not feel strongly one way or another. I came across a few of these. Some who were undecided said they were touched and that this made the decision for them. Even some previously ardent Clinton supporters seemed to find themselves torn between the two candidates after hearing Obama's moving words. At the same time, I saw reports of others who reacted with discomfort, who were uneasy about dwelling on these difficult contradictions in American life. Some thought race was not really an important issue and were unhappy that this much attention was being focused on it.

Even though I saw fewer of these, the variety of responses from people in this group was significantly greater, and unsurprisingly I was unable to discern any general trends from the small, unrepresentative sample I encountered. In the coming days and weeks, we'll see polls and eventually primary results which will give us a better sense of the larger impact.

Right now, it's anyone's guess what shape that impact will have. It's clear that Obama took some serious risks--he wrote the speech himself and delivered it without vetting it before focus groups or taking polls to see how people would react--and decided to communicate what he actually felt with a candor almost unprecedented in the politics of our time.

He defied the expectations of many "savvy" political commentators and reporters (many of whom seemed to entirely miss the central points of the speech) and actually addressed the issues with a degree of subtlety and nuance that presupposed that Americans are intelligent and reasonable enough to make complex judgments about almost intractable moral and political problems. Perhaps he overestimated the ability of most Americans, but it's painfully obvious that too much of the news media and far too many politicians underestimate it, perhaps grossly.

I found Obama's speech to be both brilliant and inspirational, and perhaps one of the greatest speeches in modern American history, for at least three reasons, which I'll share.

First, he was able to draw parallels between black experience and white experience, showing how both groups are capable of racist thinking, while giving an account of why such thinking occurs and acknowledging that it won't disappear over night. At the same time, he called on both groups to take responsibility and not to blame members of another race for the problems they face.

Instead, he deflected the blame to the unchecked greed and unregulated excesses of corporate America. This was a master stroke, both because it acknowledges that human beings need to blame someone for their problems, and because more people now are being pressed economically and are all too aware of Wall St.'s misdeeds with the recent financial bail-outs making the news. In addition to being strategically brilliant, it has the added virtue of being true.

Second, Obama showed, once again, how the politics of hope can overcome the politics of fear. Spinoza, in addition to penning the highly relevant quotation I cite in my header (the one that acknowledges that reason alone is insufficient to sway people, but must also have an affective, emotional dimension), rightly argued that hope and fear are the two most powerful emotions politically. Reason will get us nowhere, he teaches us, if we ignore the fundamental realities of human psychology. It's difficult, but one can influence people without being manipulative, and I think Obama does just that.

Obama's campaign has become a broad-based social movement because he knows how to wield hope skillfully and because people are sick of the fear that has disastrously guided this country's actions for (at least) the past seven years. He doesn't talk down to people as does President Bush, and is far more transparent about the motivations for his policy preferences. In short, he treats others equally as rational moral agents, regardless of how much they may disagree with him. Applying these strengths to the race issue, one in which fear of the Other plays all-too-dominant a role, is not only appropriate; it is of potentially tremendous benefit to this country's future.

Finally, Obama eschewed many of the pretenses and rhetorical flourishes of some of his earlier speeches and tried to connect to citizens on a personal level. Having come from mixed ethnic background, he was able to tell both blacks and whites, I think credibly, that he knows what we're going through. As he has often done, he was able to use specific examples of real people's lives powerfully, ending with a story of how Americans from very different worlds, a young white woman and an old black man, were able to come together over a common political purpose.

In some ways, this is the most important quality of this speech and the one that demands firsthand exposure. It made me think to my own experience. I of course have never been the victim of racism firsthand, but I happen to have a member of my immediate family for whom this is a very real possibility.

Several years ago, my parents decided to adopt a little girl from Guatemala. She's of mixed ethnicity but has the features and skin-tone to appear as an African American. She is also one of the most delightful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Even though she has been on this earth not much longer than a decade, she has been able to make astounding connections with other people of all walks of life--my parents joke that she has more adult friends than they do. Her affability and empathy, coupled with a flair for occasional theatrics (although that could just be a product of youth), make her unlike anyone else in my family (we tend to be bookish and on the shy side).

That she could be the victim of racial slurs and slights, of discrimination and prejudice, is a matter I prefer not to think about, because it deeply saddens and angers me. But I look to the example of Barack Obama and what he has been able to do both to transcend racial divisions personally and to inspire others to come together across this divide, and it literally brings tears to my eyes. It gives me hope at a point in my life when cynicism comes all too easily.

Perhaps Obama cannot deliver on his promises and will turn out to be a politician like any other. Perhaps. But I've seen what American politics looks like in the past quarter century and I know that I don't like it. I think he deserves a chance.

To be able to inspire people with his eloquence is more than just rhetoric; to effectively instill hope in others is to increase the likelihood that those hopes will be realized. When people are motivated to pursue a common good, they can do far more than they could isolated in the world of distraction that capitalism has created for us.

That's why his words matter and that's why he should be the next President of the United States.

UPDATE: This article in the NY Times on the impact of Obama's speech and the way it actually is opening up a conversation in America on race is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about (see also my response to another commenter below). Today, in fact, I myself had a very productive discussion with fellow grad students about this very topic.

Some people complain that he is all talk and no action, but they fail to understand how a skilled orator like Obama is acting in profound ways when he speaks. (Those familiar with "speech act" theory might consider extending its insights to an example like this.) That he is able to inspire people with his words, to motivate them to take further action--this is perhaps his greatest asset as a presidential candidate (and president, much of whose power is, as one of my friends pointed out, largely symbolic, directing the national conversation and so forth) and why I feel quite confident now in supporting him.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

DOES OBAMA EVEN KNOW WHO HE AND HIS DESPICABLE PASTOR HAVE OFFENDED MOST, AND WHY HIS FAVORABILITY RATING IS IN FREEFALL?

Why is a guy who grew up a rich kid with a Kenyan father and Southern White mother (no ties to being a slave whatsoever) lecturing Northern Whites regarding the Civil War when it was our ancestors who fought and died in the Union Army to free the slaves?

Is Obama kidding or what? Yes, Senator Obama, let’s have a discussion about race in America and then maybe you’ll understand why you are in absolute freefall against John McCain in States like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. You ripped a scab off of a wound that we didn’t deserve to have inflicted in the first place.

Lexi

specter_of_spinoza said...

Thanks, Lexi, for providing a nice illustration of the kind of negative responses I saw to this speech. Your use of capital letters of course only enhances the persuasiveness of your "argument".

But to address the substance of your comments, I don't think he's trying to lecture anybody, although I suppose that's one way to interpret it; I thought he was making an effort to start a conversation that acknowledged the difficulties of the problem while being as sympathetic as possible to everyone involved.

I think if you look at the content of the speech, though, you'll find that Obama addresses the issue of white resentment about being accused of racism, concerning which you seem quite upset.

Personally, I myself find it annoying when, as some leftist academics do, we are told that we are all racist, if not consciously so, then unconsciously. In addition to making progress on race relations seem impossible, it is highly offensive to those of us who do the best we can. I find it personally insulting when I'm accused of being racist when I, say, give a reasonable argument challenging preferential treatment for minorities in college admissions. So, if Obama doesn't know exactly where you're coming from, then I and a lot of other white Obama supporters do.

But Obama is neither a radical academic nor a loudmouth old preacher, even though such people may be among his friends. He is not personally interested in invoking white guilt or in saying that there isn't a rationale to resentment over affirmative action and other policies that look like reverse discrimination.

But he thinks we can transcend this divisiveness eventually. He asks us to take some personal responsibility while at the same time being sympathetic to the hardships of our fellow human beings. That may not be easy, but isn't it something we all want? Shouldn't all people be treated fairly, in ways that they justly deserve?

In the very least, he expresses this drive to sympathize with and understand others regardless of race or other differences as an ideal, one which I think he seriously wants to live by. If we scrutinize the vast public record of statements made by his campaign looking specifically to find material to discredit him (which is really what was done with Wright's sermons), I'm sure we can find instances of statements that can be interpreted as "playing the race card" and so forth.

But no one is perfect, Obama can't control the language used by every single person who works for him or with whom he has ever been close, and quite frankly, aren't we at least a little bit sick of the microscopically intensive nit-picking of the 24-hour news networks?

I don't care who your preferred candidate is; some details of our lives should remain private. We all make mistakes and have moments in our lives of which we are ashamed. It is grossly unfair to judge people only by those moments and not to look at the larger context.

(Incidentally, one of the highly controversial statements, viz., that US foreign policy had a role to play in provoking 9/11, is hardly unreasonable even though it is a big no-no to even imagine that America can do nothing but good in the world. But let me just say this: no human being is purely evil; almost everyone believes that they act for some good, as misguided as they may be. To suggest that terrorists attack because they "hate our freedom" is the kind of puerile, unthinking response I expect from our current president, but not one that comes at all close to addressing the complexity of the issues. Personally, I think Obama is intelligent enough to recognize that the US is not entirely blameless here--but that doesn't mean we "deserved it" either, just that these things don't occur in a vacuum--but also politically astute enough to know not to try to challenge this idea, especially right now. My hope is that, if elected president, he might be able to force us to rethink some of these things for the sake of creating better foreign policy. If you want to stop terrorism, you need to address the root causes. Right now, we aren't even allowed to think about what those causes might be.)

I don't expect to convince you, Lexi, but I would ask you: do you enjoy being so angry? Are fear and disgust and outrage the only emotions that should drive politics? Or is there another possibility? Are there not alternative roads we might yet take? I hope other people at least will think so.

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