Obama tackles race: “problems that confront us all”

By Chris McCarthy

It requires all Americans to realise that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help of all America prosper.

President Barack Obama, 18 March 2008

Since the first ship carrying a small cargo of Africans landed in Virgina in the early 17th Century, race has left more scars on the American conscience and fostered more division than any other issue. Several hundred years later, the first African-American would become President of the United States, the culmination of a movement for racial equality that had taken flight in the 1950s with the Civil Rights Movement.

Despite the irrepressible momentousness and poignant visibility of 4 November 2008, when Barack Hussein Obama was elected America’s 44th president, the then-Senator for Illinois had not predicated his campaign on the relationship between his unique heritage and the country’s racial past.

A combination of electoral math – a presidential election could not be won solely by courting the black and minorities’ vote – and personal belief – Obama spoke eloquently at the 2004 Democratic National Convention against the idea of a ‘red’ America or ‘blue’ America, but a United States of America – fuelled a campaign that sought to transcend race.

A strategy some saw as avoidance and others as tactical astuteness was thrown open when, in mid-March 2008, the media reported that Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had harshly condemned America in a series of sermons. Clips available on YouTube and repeatedly aired on US news stations showed the pastor imploring his congregation to sing “God damn America” and opining shortly after the 9/11 attacks that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost”.

With Obama facing pressure by critics and supporters alike to condemn the remarks and denounce the pastor, his promising campaign was threatened with derailment. To arrest the burgeoning momentum behind the Wright controversy, Obama decided to confront the pastor’s remarks but within the broader theme of race in American public life, in a speech in Philadelphia on 18 March.

The presidential hopeful had explored the theme before in his memoir Dreams from My Fatherfirst published in 1995 following his election as the first Africa-American president of the Harvard Law Review five years prior. But this exposition was under very different circumstances, with high-risk outcomes and needed to cater for a spectrum of constituencies.

Over 37 minutes Obama delivered a candid speech that spoke of the founding ideals of America’s union, the costly struggle to bring those about through civil war and civil disobedience, the legacy of the “black experience”, the progress that had been made and the progress still needed, and the relevance of his own life story. Running throughout was a theme Obama had raised before and would draw upon again, not of hope or change, but of shared aspirations and common challenges:

I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together…that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

On several occasions Obama raises the pressing issues of education, healthcare, the economy, and costly wars, “problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all,” but he was aware that no discussion of race relations in America at the time would have been complete without an acknowledgement of past racial injustices. Segregated schools, legalised discrimination, lack of economic opportunities for black men – a “legacy of defeat that was passed on to future generations.”

The speech was not an attempt to justify Wright’s remarks but to provide the context that would elucidate their provenance: “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; not has the anger and bitterness of those years.” It was within that framework of explanation that Obama would deliver the speech’s most memorable lines: “I can no more disown him [Reverend Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother…who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Obama’s denouncement of the Reverend’s comments, “condemned in unequivocal terms”, could not ignore the feelings of perceived injustices from which they born, experiences shared by many black Americans that had left a scarred and confused legacy for future generations. The Reverend’s mistake, opined the future president, is not that he raised racism at all: “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” The comments “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country…that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”

When Jon Favreau, the President’s Director of Speechwriting, first met the then-Senator for Illinois in the Dirksen building on Capitol Hill, Obama wanted to know what his “theory of speech writing” was: “I have no theory,” Favreau responded. “But when I saw you at the [2004] convention, you basically told a story about your life from beginning to end, and it was a story that fit with the larger American narrative…you touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before.”

Obama’s speech in Philadelphia that day was anchored with a narrative that drew a line from the American declaration of independence, an “improbable experiment in democracy,” to the present-day United States. A 221-year-old union founded on imperfections but that “should be perfected over time.” It was a speech that could only carry the resonance it did about wounds that were centuries-old but still sore, having been delivered by a candidate whose past was steeped in that very history but not solely defined by it:

It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.

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