Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wright, race, and the post-racial campaign

Barack Obama delivered a remarkable speech this morning in Philadelphia, directly tackling the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy with daring arguments and nuanced historical context rarely heard on the American campaign stump.

He challenged white voters to better understand the roots of black anger. He challenged black voters to move beyond their sometimes "shocking ignorance." All told, Obama sought in his ambitious address to deliver tough love to both sides of the racial divide, while simultaneously trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature. I know that the Robert Kennedy analogies have gotten a heavy workout in recent months; this speech, however, was an RFK classic, and I'm old enough to remember that '68 campaign.

Was Obama effective? That will depend on how it is received, particularly by the millions of white voters who, in the midst of forming their first impressions of Obama, may have been spooked by Wright's most incendiary remarks. Indeed, Obama's immediate audience was probably the white working-class, culturally conservative voters who may prove pivotal in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary; a lot of those folks undoubtedly were not charmed to learn that Obama's favorite pastor, for two decades, was a guy who intoned "God damn America" from the pulpit.

Obama clearly needed to put his firm imprint on this burgeoning dispute; to spin it to his advantage; to squelch the nagging questions about what he as a congregant had heard or not heard; to explain Wright and rhetoric and race in a way that would fit with the overarching narrative of his aspirationally post-racial campaign. Above all, he needed to supplant the video images of a ranting Wright with fresh clips of himself speaking to the issue without apology, and with his sights still fixed on the high road.

The speech was effective, if only in the sense that he accomplished most of those goals. For starters, he 'fessed up that he indeed had heard Wright say some loopy stuff during Sunday sermons: "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely..."

Then he laid out his disagreements: "(Sometimes Wright) expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam. As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems..." Moreover, some of Wright's comments have "denigrated the greatness and goodness of our nation."

Skeptical white voters, listening to those passages, might still wonder whether Obama had ever protested to Wright in private. Obama did not address that question. And Obama is still open to the flip-flop charge, since, just a few days ago, he had suggested that none of Wright's strongest rhetoric (perhaps slogans such as "US of KKK A") had ever directly reached his ears...whereas now he says some of it did, albeit unspecified. But at least, by confronting the awareness question, Obama may avoid being nagged further on that front.

But one of his trickiest tasks was to rebuke Wright for sounding insufficiently patriotic (thereby reclaiming the flag for himself), without sounding as if he was throwing Wright under the bus in the service of his own political ambitions. So he said that Wright has a good side that doesn't show up on YouTube, that Wright is an ex-Marine who "has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS."

Most importantly - and this was his challenge to white voters - Wright was shaped, for better or worse, by his experiences growing up in an America segregated by race, an America where blacks were relegated to second-class status: "For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table...And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning."

This was gutsy stuff, perhaps impolitic. It's always risky to tell white voters that they are willfully clueless about how black people really feel. Although Obama also made sure that he honored the legitimate grievances of the white working stiff: "They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense."

But Obama also challenged his own brethren, the heart of his political base, by suggesting that the harsh rhetoric in black churches is too often a dead end: "The church 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...That anger...all too often distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change...It means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny."

Then he pivoted to the high road, challenging all sides: "For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words...

"We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"

One hardy piece of political advice is: Cut your losses, and turn things to your advantage. Obama today tried just that, to knock down a bad story and challenge the electorate in a manner consistent with his core campaign theme. I won't hazard a guess on whether he succeeded; the risk is that too many skeptics will cherry-pick the passages that tick them off, and ignore the rest. But Obama's future as a potentially transformative politician may hinge on the outcome.


Tonight, I'll be in the CNN studio in New York, for Campbell Brown's show (8 to 9 pm). No doubt I will be asked something about the Obama speech, and maybe I can find something new to say.