Obama on Wright and Race

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 19 2008 6:49 PM

Obama on Wright and Race

I thought Obama’s speech on race was possibly the best thing any politician has said about race in decades (note the qualification: any politician. )


Advertisement

Putting Rev. Wrights’ comments in the context of understandable, if misdirected, black anger over real racial problems was a rhetorical master stroke, made even better by the fact that it rings absolutely true.  And it was gutsy: it’s plausible that much of Obama’s support comes from white voters who hope Obama represents a free pass on racial questions.  But Obama didn’t offer a free pass—he offered a demanding challenge: we must address racial inequities and try to understand our fellow citizens even when they offend us.  I thought this subtle but pointed rejection of a staple of politically correct thinking (if anyone "offends" me then the conversation has to stop until they take care of my hurt feelings) was spot on—if we’re to get anywhere in dealing with race, we’d better get not be so quick to take offense.   



And comparing black anger and white resentment helps make the important point that we’re now locked into a race dialogue that consist primarily of scandal and reaction ("you’re a racist"—"no, you’re just playing the race card.") that’s based in large part on the politics of umbrage and outrage—a competition for who’s been more wronged.  It’s really encouraging that Obama is thinking of a way to move beyond this depressing stalemate rather than simply exploit it for short term advantage (compare his and Clinton’s back and forth on race and gender after S Carolina or, Mitt Romney’s defensive reaction to questions about his religious convictions).   



It wasn’t perfect: I would have liked more candor on the tough questions—given the legacy of Jim Crow racism about which Obama spoke, what should we do?  It’s true that some racial problems are really just part of larger social and economic problems: for instance, the problem of the black "super ghetto" is in large part a consequence of the emptying out of industrial cities during the 60s and 70s as a result of profound economic changes, the decline of manufacturing, etc.  So in that sense poor blacks in the South Side of Chicago have common cause with unemployed Ohio steel workers.  But it's too easy to say this and stop: for instance, neighborhood and school segregation—probably the greatest unaddressed legacy of Jim Crow--may well require race conscious solutions such as affirmative action and busing.  It’s understandable that Obama doesn’t want to wander into those mine fields, but her won’t be able to avoid them for long if he’s serious about confronting racial inequity.



But these cavils aside, it was a brave and profound speech and best of all it suggests how Obama will use his considerable rhetorical skills, not just to inspire political support, but to lead on contentious issues.  



TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.