Threading the Race Needle

After Obama’s speech on race, identity politics may never be the same.

Barack Obama

Is it possible for a single speech to change the rules of political discourse in America? In my lifetime, that claim has been made for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and for Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in 1987. We may yet hear the same claim made for the refreshingly honest and eloquent speech about race that Barack Obama delivered this morning in Philadelphia.

It was a speech that, had I been Obama’s campaign manager, I would have advised him not to give, because it gave no quarter to the realities of identity politics as practiced in American politics. Obama’s task was to distance himself from incendiary comments uttered by his former preacher the Rev. Jeremiah Wright without alienating himself from the black community. My presumption was that it couldn’t be done—that the ritualistic denunciation demanded by the white community would be inherently offensive to the black community. Better to say as little as possible and to hope it blows over quickly, which seemed to work when Obama’s wife, Michelle, last month committed a subtler gaffe (“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of our country”) that required near-immediate “clarification.” To elaborate beyond a simple, terse condemnation of Wright, I’d have said, would only pour gasoline on the fire. But I’d have been wrong.

The degeneration of the Democratic nomination campaign into identity politics has had (to borrow a term from civil rights law) a “disparate impact” on the candidates. It’s helped Hillary Clinton and hurt Obama. For example, on the morning of the New Hampshire primary, the New York Times published a remarkably whiny op-ed by Gloria Steinem essentially arguing that Clinton was more deserving of the presidency than Obama because (she argued) in American society, women are bigger victims than blacks. Kathleen Deveny, an assistant manager editor at Newsweek, later echoed this line. Geraldine Ferraro’s famous gaffe blaming Obama’s success on his blackness was in large part a blunter version of the very same argument (which may explain why she was so puzzled later that it caused so much controversy):

“I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama’s campaign—to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against,” she said. “For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It’s been a very sexist media. Some just don’t like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

Clinton didn’t disavow Steinem’s op-ed or Deveny’s Newsweek piece, but she had to disavow what Ferraro said, and—when Ferraro wouldn’t apologize for the remark—to remove her from her finance committee. But despite the embarrassment, it’s unlikely the incident will harm Hillary in the long run. Turnout for Hillary has been consistently high among white women because many of them interpret Clinton’s various setbacks as evidence of sexism.

The calculus has been entirely different for Obama, if only because African-Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population compared with women’s 50 percent. From the start, Obama distanced himself so completely from identity politics that as recently as October, Clinton led Obama among black voters 57 percent to 33 percent. That has since changed, partly because of Bill Clinton’s uncharacteristically maladroit comparison of Obama’s support in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. This created resentment among African-Americans that Obama was being marginalized because of his race. Obama himself kept above the fray, and it’s striking that in what Slate’s John Dickerson has aptly termed the “Umbrage War” between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, no Obama partisans were jettisoned for making any strident declarations of black alienation from white America. Or rather, none until the Rev. Wright, who, after he was quoted saying “not God bless America—God damn America!” and “Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger” was compelled to resign from the campaign’s spiritual advisory committee.

Wright’s outbursts posed an impossible dilemma for Obama, not only because he risked having to choose between white support and black—language deeply offensive to whites being fairly routine in the sermons of black ministers preaching to black congregations—but because Wright was a close friend, and spurning him on a personal level would have made Obama look opportunistic and phony.

Remarkably, Obama found a way to thread the needle. Wright’s comments, he said in today’s speech, “were not only wrong but divisive,” and his church

contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Obama continued,

I can no more disown [Wright] 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.

Wright’s mistake, Obama said,

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.

This isn’t about taking sides, Obama said. (By noting his mixed parentage, Obama pointed out that he couldn’t take sides even if he wanted to without denying a part of himself.) This is about recognizing the legitimate grievances of blacks and whites, often expressed in the language of bigotry and bitterness, and then moving to address them. It’s about not ignoring the ugliness in American life—when’s the last time you heard a politician admit that ugliness can be found even in American churches?—but neither is it about defining yourself solely in opposition to that ugliness. It’s about keeping your eye on the ball, staying focused on what can be achieved, even when the conversation turns to race, the single most divisive topic in American life. (My apologies to feminists, but we didn’t fight a civil war over the place of women in American society.) It’s about rejecting identity politics while honoring the nobler aspirations of the identity politicians. And it’s about feeling confident that positive social change can be achieved, because it’s been achieved in this country in the past. That Obama managed to say all this without displaying an ounce of false piety, or bitterness, or sentimentality, or denial, or self-righteousness, makes his speech a milestone in American political rhetoric.