Obama on Wright and Race

I thought Obama’s speech on race was possibly the best thing any politician has said about race in decades (note the qualification: any politician. )

Putting Rev. Wrights’ comments in the context of understandable, if misdirected, black anger over real racial problems was a rhetorical master stroke, made even better by the fact that it rings absolutely true.  And it was gutsy: it’s plausible that much of Obama’s support comes from white voters who hope Obama represents a free pass on racial questions.  But Obama didn’t offer a free pass—he offered a demanding challenge: we must address racial inequities and try to understand our fellow citizens even when they offend us.  I thought this subtle but pointed rejection of a staple of politically correct thinking (if anyone “offends” me then the conversation has to stop until they take care of my hurt feelings) was spot on—if we’re to get anywhere in dealing with race, we’d better get not be so quick to take offense.   

And comparing black anger and white resentment helps make the important point that we’re now locked into a race dialogue that consist primarily of scandal and reaction (“you’re a racist”—”no, you’re just playing the race card.”) that’s based in large part on the politics of umbrage and outrage—a competition for who’s been more wronged.  It’s really encouraging that Obama is thinking of a way to move beyond this depressing stalemate rather than simply exploit it for short term advantage (compare his and Clinton’s back and forth on race and gender after S Carolina or, Mitt Romney’s defensive reaction to questions about his religious convictions).   

It wasn’t perfect: I would have liked more candor on the tough questions—given the legacy of Jim Crow racism about which Obama spoke, what should we do?  It’s true that some racial problems are really just part of larger social and economic problems: for instance, the problem of the black “super ghetto” is in large part a consequence of the emptying out of industrial cities during the 60s and 70s as a result of profound economic changes, the decline of manufacturing, etc.  So in that sense poor blacks in the South Side of Chicago have common cause with unemployed Ohio steel workers.  But it’s too easy to say this and stop: for instance, neighborhood and school segregation—probably the greatest unaddressed legacy of Jim Crow–may well require race conscious solutions such as affirmative action and busing.  It’s understandable that Obama doesn’t want to wander into those mine fields, but her won’t be able to avoid them for long if he’s serious about confronting racial inequity.

But these cavils aside, it was a brave and profound speech and best of all it suggests how Obama will use his considerable rhetorical skills, not just to inspire political support, but to lead on contentious issues.