Threading the Race Needle
After Obama's speech on race, identity politics may never be the same.
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.
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.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.