Right words on race get harder to hear
Share with others:
During the height of the Democratic primary fight in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a remarkable speech at Philadelphia's Constitution Center, ostensibly to deal with the incendiary matter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
You couldn't turn on Fox News without seeing footage of Mr. Obama's former pastor and friend denouncing America. He was the perfect boogie man for a network desperately searching for a worthy successor to Willie Horton to use to bash the Democrats.
One of the most memorable moments from that March afternoon two years ago was Mr. Obama's use of William Faulkner's quote: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."
As was quickly pointed out by commentators, Mr. Obama slightly mangled the quote in his speech. Faulkner's actual line is more elegant: "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."
The truth of what Mr. Obama said about race and reconciliation that afternoon resonated with vast swaths of Americans. It was an intelligent, fiercely realistic, yet poetic synthesis of our national experience.
We recognized our imperfect attempts to knit ourselves into a more perfect union in Mr. Obama's beautiful speech. It was both inspiring and heartbreaking, succeeding as a credo of the candidate's worldview while effectively neutralizing Rev. Wright as an issue. Somehow, Mr. Obama translated the nuances of our tragic racial history into words and images we could understand. Many of us considered that a rare and powerful talent in a future president.
A few critics -- mostly on Fox, but at least one or two on MSNBC as well -- managed to miss the point of Mr. Obama's speech entirely. They fixated on what would become a recurring meme of white victimology during the early years of the Obama presidency. "Did Obama throw his white grandmother under the bus?" they asked with shameless earnestness after the candidate referred to his maternal grandmother's recurring racial anxieties around black men. That was the main takeaway from his speech, as far as they were concerned.
The extreme right-wing's inability to "hear" the full context of what Mr. Obama actually said during the best speech on race since MLK's "I Have a Dream" in 1963 spoke to that faction's pathological fear of the change he represented. It was a pattern that would only get more pronounced with the rise of the tea party movement the following year.
Now, two years into Mr. Obama's first term, we're confronted with the paradox of a biracial president who identifies with the black experience while retreating from any conscious acknowledgment of it during the execution of his presidential duties.
Looking back on that speech as I did this week, Mr. Obama's reluctance to cut off Jeremiah Wright completely at that point in the campaign was uncharacteristic bravery. He was displaying a very admirable, if risky, integrity that eludes him now.
The moral equivalence he made between Rev. Wright's old-school racial resentments and his grandmother's "negrophobia" was repugnant to many, but his point was clear. These people, despite their flaws, were important to him. He would always deal with them through the prism of the personal, not the political.
But Mr. Obama's grandmother died the day before he was elected president. Shortly before he was sworn in, he broke with Rev. Wright unequivocally. Last summer, Mr. Obama had the temerity to take a black Harvard professor's side against a white cop in an argument about racial profiling and had his head handed to him. These days, unless he's calling Kanye West "a jackass" or lecturing black audiences about the epidemic of drooping pants, he keeps mum about racial controversies.
This week, a 62-year-old black woman, a civil rights veteran who worked for the Georgia bureau of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was treated abominably by an unlikely alliance of Fox News, the NAACP, the White House and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Without due process, Shirley Sherrod was pressured to resign because an influential right-wing blogger mau-maued her as a racist with a duplicitously edited videotape of a speech she made to the NAACP in March.
In many ways, Ms. Sherrod's speech was just as nuanced and uplifting as Barack Obama's two years earlier, but she didn't get the benefit of the doubt from her bosses at USDA. She was a political appointee, thus, expendable.
Despite the best laid plans of right-wing smear merchants, the mainstream media quickly discovered that Ms. Sherrod wasn't Rev. Jeremiah Wright in drag. She was vindicated within days and her accusers thoroughly discredited. Now she's a cautionary tale for a White House that fell for the grossest kind of racist media spin.
Please, Mr. President, re-read your Philadelphia speech. You need to be inspired again.
First Published July 23, 2010 12:00 am