Illinois Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech on race in America, on March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia. The speech has been analyzed extensively in the media. It is widely available online, but in case you can’t find it, I have saved a copy at the URL at the end of this article.
News commentators predictably, witlessly, and cynically ask their pundits, “Has he put this issue behind him now?” As if the most divisive social issue in our nation’s history could be “put behind” anyone who lives here. The writers of the U.S. constitution could not “put it behind them” and had to finesse the issue of slavery, granting the states twenty years to come up with a solution. They didn't and the civil war broke out. Slavery was finally outlawed but not racism, which continued. The civil rights act of 1964 outlawed overt manifestations of racism, but of course, not racist attitudes, which persist to this day.
The analysts and pundits are ostensibly talking about Obama’s minister, Jeremiah Wright, who has a history of making flamboyant remarks from the pulpit, critical of American government and American white society for (in his view) deliberately and systematically oppressing the black populace, historically and even now. Many of his assertions are plainly demagogic and deliberately hyperbolic, and some are just ignorant, such as his claim that AIDS is promulgated by the government to decimate the black population.
What are the implications?
• Are we supposed to think that Obama believes the government is deliberately spreading AIDS?
• Are we to understand that Obama believes all white people are racist?
• Are we to suppose that Obama believes the 9-11 attacks were self-inflicted?
• Does Obama’s membership in the church imply that he is a racist?
• Does Obama’s friendship with the reverend prove that Obama hates America?
These are ludicrous suggestions, so ludicrous that no one would dare speak them. Instead they remain unspoken innuendo. Ridiculous though they are, they persist for two reasons:
1. The news media are racist and love racism. They highlight it as luridly as possible whenever they can. Why? Because we live in a capitalist society. The job of the news media is primarily to sell advertising and only incidentally to be informative. Since separating people from their money is best done with emotion, not rationality, and since racism incites emotion, it follows as night follows day that the media prefer to display, not analyze racism.
2. Racism is endemic in the society. Not overt KKK terrorism, but the subtle fears and doubts we all have about anyone who is different. Alas, skin color is the scarlet letter of ethnicity. You see it coming and you react before you have a chance to discover the person. Not everyone has the mental skill to analyze that reaction, to break through the egocentric bubble that insulates us from anything that is not a mirror-image.
Obama, more than most people, certainly more than Hilary Clinton, has shown himself in public. He is giving us the opportunity to look behind the outer shell. But many people only see shells. So despite one of the most eloquent speeches ever given about race in America, many people still react only, or mainly, to skin color.
Will Obama’s speech change any minds about him? Not among those who lack the capacity for self-reflection. Racism (as with any form of xenophobia) is irrational, so by definition, no rational argument exists that can change it. But I personally have talked to two people who have changed their affiliation from Clinton to Obama because of that speech. Both individuals were impressed by its honesty and thoughtfulness. “Nobody could make that stuff up,” said one. “Even if you wanted to BS about race, you couldn’t think of those things to say.”
With this speech, Obama has revealed himself more than he ever has. I admire him for it. But to be honest myself, I wonder if it was politic. Up to now he had been pretending that he had no color and that we were color blind. Of course that couldn’t last. But he has such charm, intelligence, self-confidence, and oratorical gifts, I wonder if he couldn’t have bluffed his way past the color question. Because now that it has been articulated, we confront naked racism, not the malicious “I’m gonna git you” kind, but the instinctive fear of an image that takes a moment to recognize as oneself.