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The Meaning of Obama's Speech on Race

By Robert Tracinski

How is Barack Obama going to recover from the revelations about the "God damn America" tirades of his pastor and "spiritual mentor," the Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

He responded by giving a speech yesterday on the problem of race in America. Unfortunately, it was a good speech--a very good speech, in fact. Obama's delivery, I thought, was a little flat; he sounded too much like a man reading a script, rather than someone opening up about his deepest convictions. But the content of the speech was probably the best he could possibly have come up with in his current predicament.

What is good about the speech is that it says the one thing Obama needed to say to differentiate himself from the Reverend Wright and to restore the basis for his support among many of his supporters.

In one key passage, Obama assures whites that he understands their resentment at constantly being vilified as racist and blamed for all of the ills suffered by blacks.

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience--as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch.... So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Equally important, Obama explicitly recognizes that America has made progress in rejecting racism. "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is...that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.... But what we know--what we have seen--is that America can change."

This is a bit of an understatement to describe a society that has transformed itself in 50 years--the span of an adult lifetime--from a country in which racial segregation was practiced openly and defiantly, to one in which even the suspicion of racial prejudice can ruin a man's career and reputation. Just as America once tore itself apart to end slavery, so in the past five decades it has turned itself upside down to exterminate racism. Obama's recognition is the smallest down payment he could possibly offer on the credit America is owed for its record on racism. But it is, I suppose, the best we've heard from a prominent black politician on the left.

At the same time that he offers this reassurance to whites, however, he offers an opposite reassurance for his black listeners, telling them that he will not entirely disown racial rabble rousers like Wright. The reverend's church, he explains, "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." Wright "contains within him the contradictions--the good and the bad--of the community that he has served diligently for so many years." And so therefore, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."

And if his white audience is still uncomfortable with this, he subtly intimidates them with an insidious appeal to liberal white guilt, implying that "the fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons" shows that whites are disconnected from the legitimate grievances of blacks, and thus "to condemn [that anger] without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

And here you thought shouting "God damn America" and concocting slanderous conspiracy theories was unforgivable--and you didn't realize that when you thought that, you were widening the chasm of misunderstanding between the races. Don't you feel terrible? Perhaps it is safer just to keep your mouth shut from now on.

The upshot is described pretty accurately by Stanley Kurtz:

Wright's view of America is rejected as mistaken, and insufficiently hopeful about the country's potential to change. Yet in the end Wright is embraced, accepted, and even to a degree justified. Wright has some basis for what he says, yet also makes mistakes, we're told, and are then reminded that the same can be said for opponents of affirmative action or proponents of welfare reform....

Remember when we were hearing about the need to purge Michael Moore and the MoveOn crowd from the Democratic Party? Obama is the polar opposite of all that--and in a devilishly clever way.... There will be plenty of the most left-leaning appointees staffing the federal bureaucracy and set into judgeships under Obama, and all of it will be smoothed over by speeches about national healing and understanding pain....

Far from pulling a Hubert Humphrey or a Tony Blair and casting the radical left out of the party, Obama seems to see his job as getting the rest of the country to adopt a stance of relative complacency toward the most egregious sorts of anti-Americanism--all under the guise of achieving national unity.

As bad as this is, however, it is not the main theme of Obama's speech. His main theme is this: we have to set aside racial grievances and agree to a racial truce--so that we can unite across racial lines and work together to achieve socialism.

The "white resentments" that he finds understandable have "distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze--a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." Similarly, "the African-American community" must "[bind] our particular grievances--for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs--to the larger aspirations of all Americans."

"The real problem," he concludes, "is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit." Nothing more than a profit? Never mind that profit is the lifeblood of our economy, the thing that keeps a productive enterprise alive--and that making less than a profit is a sign of economic destruction. Instead, Obama's goal is to mobilize the power of government "to give health care to the sick, jobs to the jobless, education to our children."

Racial politics, he argues, has to be subordinated to the larger goal of moving America toward socialism. Obama is arguing for a retreat from the racial collectivism of the New Left back to the Marxist economic collectivism of the Old Left. His theme, in short, is: workers of the world unite.

But like I said, this is a very good speech, and all of this is brilliantly packaged to sound benign and uncontroversial. As he winds up his speech, Obama presents his theme as a simple appeal to the Golden Rule, to "nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand--that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

Will this speech be enough to save Obama from the revelations that he has been deeply involved with a church and a pastor who have peddled a profoundly evil ideology of racism and anti-Americanism? For some voters, no. I am sure there is a segment of swing voters who now will never give him their vote. For them, a long drawn-out speech like this cannot paper over the indelible image of the Reverend Wright screaming "God damn America."

But this speech will, in all likelihood, go over very well with those on the moderate left. They want desperately to believe that Obama still stands for racial reconciliation, and this speech will give them just enough to keep on believing. That will produce two important results for Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination.

First, it will silence the criticism from much of the mainstream media, which is likely to praise his speech, present sympathetic excerpts, and take Obama's reassurances at face value. There is a good chance that they will henceforth regard references to the Reverend Wright as unfair, as attempts to smear Obama through "guilt by association"--precisely the defense Obama has lamely been attempting to erect. And so the Reverend Wright will once again disappear from the mainstream media coverage of the election.

Second, this speech will staunch some of Obama's losses among Democratic voters. A mass desertion of disillusioned Obama supporters, combined with a complete loss by Obama of the white vote, is the only thing that could give Hillary Clinton the huge margins of victory she would need in the remaining primaries to make up her deficit in pledged delegates. And only by reducing or eliminating that lead and showing that she has powerful momentum late in the contest can she convince the superdelegates to take the nomination away from Obama. After this speech, that once again looks impossible, so Barack Obama is once again the clear presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.

As for the right, however, I expect that the main effect of this controversy will be to consolidate support for John McCain in a way even Hillary Clinton could not have done. In a contest between a man who sat in the pews Sunday after Sunday while his pastor bad-mouthed America, versus a war hero who endured torture for his country, no one on the right will even regard this as a choice.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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