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March 20, 2008

The Speech

Filed under: General,Politics — CPav @ 5:54 pm
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Barack Obama gave a speech two days ago. Going in to the speech, it was being compared to Mitt Romney’s speech not too long ago in which he opened up on his Mormonism, or, for those with longer memories, John F. Kennedy’s campaign speech in which he explained to a group of Southern ministers that a vote for him would not be the same as turning the White House over to the Pope.

Since the world has moved on a few news cycles since then, a quick summary: Video hit the interwebs showing Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s beloved pastor, the man he credits for bringing him to Christ, in a number of sermons which are critical of the U.S. government and white people in general. Excuse me. It was later qualified that he wasn’t railing against whites, but rather rich whites. The candidate, who had previously asked his pastor not to appear at the news conference announcing his candidacy, went on television repeatedly, repudiating the comments but refusing to denounce the man.

This set the stage for Obama’s speech on Tuesday. There was speculation that he would address the role of religion in his life, or racism. What he did was practically transcendent.

I am too young to remember Kennedy’s Catholicism speech, but I’ve been exposed to enough history to remember his “Ask not what your country can do for you…” inaugural speech, and my first reaction to reading Obama’s speech (I was at work, and did not have the opportunity to listen to it at the time), was to compare it to that speech. As a low-level politician myself, and someone with some small facility with words, I was blown away by Obama’s speech.

It’s very safe, easy, and non-controversial to denounce racism. Most people would say that judging someone simply by the color of their skin or their country of origin is a bad thing. Of course, a number of those same people would gladly tell you how are stealing all the good jobs, or get all the breaks.

In his speech, Obama touched briefly on Reverend Wright’s comments, and put them in a historical context, that of a person who had lived through the era of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the injustices which had preceded it, and who still bears the anger that many of that generation do. Senator Obama also offered the observation that this anger was justified. And that statement could have ended his candidacy, or relegated him to the status of “black candidate”, one who justifies the anger of black Americans against white.

But he didn’t stop there. With his next breath, Obama gave almost the same historical context and understanding for the feeling of frustration and betrayal of lower and middle-class white voters, voters who have never themselves repressed others, but who see advantages and opportunities granted to those others, who see jobs going away.

In this single, brilliant move, Barack Obama has established himself in both camps, and again, it could have ended, with him making the case that he can understand the feelings of both black and white voters who see themselves as wronged or disenfranchised, but his point made, he went one step further still, recalling Kennedy’s challenge to the nation and call to action. He calls on the American people to make a choice: Whether we will focus on all of the slights and innuendo and speculation that divide us, or on the common concerns that unite us. If we choose the latter, he says, then in the next election we will simply focus on another, no-more-consequential distraction, and on and on, in a never-ending cycle. If, however, we unite around our common issues and begin the discussion here, it can continue on into the future.

From the linguistic point of view, I was impressed with the turn of phrase that Obama repeatedly returned to, the idea of the struggle toward perfection of the Union. He started out with the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” He pointed out that the Declaration did not create a perfect union, and that intervening generations struggled toward filling in the gaps, as we do now. He referred to his own campaign as “imperfect”, and spoke of “perfect[ing] our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes…” And, at the conclusion of his final anecdote, about an old black man and a young white girl who came together on his campaign, he observed that “…that is where the perfection begins.”

The full text of Senator Obama’s speech is available at CNN.

Time Magazine’s analysis is here.

And my friend Mike Wallack chimes in with his observations in his blog.

The 300 Project: 11/52


March 15, 2008

Barack Obama Accused of Being Black — Heads Must Role!!!

So, Geraldine Ferraro’s talking the other day on tv. For those of you who are too young to remember, or who can’t quite place the name, or who have quite frankly just blocked the whole thing out, Ferraro was the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in the 1984 Presidential race. And she’s talking about the current Democratic candidates. And she did the unforgivable. She went somewhere that the Clinton campaign promised they wouldn’t go. She made comments that caused her, three days later, to resign from her post on the finance committee for the Clinton campaign (which, to be fair, no one knew she was part of until she ran her mouth off).

That unforgivable allegation? Ferraro alleged that Barack Obama is…make sure you’re sitting down now…black.

Specifically, what he said is that he wouldn’t be where he is now if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s black. And the crowd went (excuse my language) batshit. (Actually, I originally typed “apeshit”, but didn’t want it to be construed as a racist remark, given the conversation.)

As a politician and, perhaps more importantly, an English major, I’m well aware of the sometime-dichotomy between what people say and what they mean. But it seems to me that if you don’t understand what Ms Ferraro was saying, you’re willfully trying to not understand. The most common response is the figurative rolling of the eyes and dripping-with-sarcasm observation that “it’s sooo advantageous to be a black man in America”.

I’m not going to sit here and say that blacks in America are on equal footing with whites. I believe (hope?) that they’re better off than they were thirty or twenty or ten years ago. But I’m not black, and I’m not going to pull the “some of my best friends are black” disclaimer because, quite frankly, they’re not. I hope (believe) that I treat everyone the same, regardless of race. I work with a lot of Indians and Asians (yes, I know that India is part of Asia, but go with the flow here), and have in the past worked with a few African Americans, and I would hope that I never gave any of them cause to think that I was treating them any differently because they were not white than I would if the were. If any of them do, I would truly like them to contact me and let me know.
End of digression

So anyway. Ms Ferraro said (essentially) that Barack Obama is the front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination because he’s black. And everybody went nuts. Cries of racism and worse (well, no, not worse) rang from the rafters. And everybody who railed against Geraldine Ferraro and called for her resignation or, better yet, her firing and lynching, missed one major point: She’s right.

Barack Obama is a junior Senator from Illinois. He has very little in the way of legislative achievements to show for his time in the Senate, or even in the Illinois Senate. He has a flair for rhetoric, and promises sweeping change, but elements of his past (his involvement with a shady financier) and present (an aide telling foreign governments that he’s just saying things to get elected, not to worry about him following through once he’s in office) could cause people look closely to question how much the new is actually different from the old. But people aren’t looking very closely as of yet, and Obama’s gone in to states where the Clinton name has traditionally done very well, states that were seen as virtual gimmes for Clinton, and either won or made it a race. And the reason for that?

Black voters.

You cannot convince me, though you’re welcome to try, that a relatively inexperienced white politician from Illinois could go in to Mississippi with a pocketful of nebulous promises and a pretty turn of phrase and have them turn out in droves at the polling places to pull the lever for him. But turn out they did. If anyone can explain to me why this would be other than race, I’m willing to listen.

No, wait. I need to amend that last statement. Because it sounds like I’m saying that the only thing Obama’s got going for him is the color of his skin. I certainly don’t believe that at all. And I don’t think Geraldine Ferraro does either. But to say that Obama’s race plays no part in his success, especially in areas with high African American voter turnout, is disingenuous at best, and delusional at worst.

The 300 Project: 10/51

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