Friday, March 21, 2008

Brilliant Speech Will Not End Debate About Pastor

Barack Obama was two-for-three Tuesday in Philadelphia: He hit two home runs, then struck out.

What he said about race relations in general was practically unprecedented in American public life, free of the ideological baggage and ethnic one-upmanship that characterizes race talk in the United States.

Sounding like an old-fashioned Reaganesque patriot, standing before a backdrop of American flags in a building across from Independence Hall, he lauded the Founding Fathers who “launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.” Yet he minced no words in saying the Constitution they wrote “was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.”

He did not shy away, either, from saying that black anger about discrimination “keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition.” Nor was he afraid to sound like a conservative when he insisted “the African-American community” must take responsibility for our own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children ... they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

He even seemed to justify the “resentment” some whites feel “when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced.”

Which did not mean he let white people off the hook: “In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed.”

It was a performance full of nuance and paradox, an acknowledgement of the nuance and paradox inherent in a history of American race relations that cannot be understood without the shades of gray that accompany black and white.

Obama also was successful in explaining what was so deeply objectionable about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 conspiracy theories, about his apparent belief that a murderous U.S. government sells drugs to poor blacks, about his call for God to “damn America.”

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons 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. That is the true genius of this nation.”

Wright’s comments, Obama said, were “wrong and divisive.” A few days ago, after the scandal broke, he used the phrases “categorically denounce” and “reject outright.”

Strong stuff. Yet in that Philadelphia speech Obama also said of the now-retired pastor: “I can no more disown him 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.”

Those arguments are so weak as to be unworthy of the nuanced and obviously paradox-capable mind Barack Obama clearly owns.

Breaking ties with Wright (if that is what “disown” means) may well be the equivalent of breaking ties with radical elements in the black community, but it is certainly not the same as breaking ties with the black community as a whole, which ought not be defined by the extremist few.

And as to his grandmother -- Obama actively sought out, then knowingly accepted Jeremiah Wright as a powerful presence in his life for 20 years. The grandmother came with the family.

One reason Obama won’t “disown” Wright is that it can’t be done, at least not in a way that allows Obama to keep credibility. If he did not “disown” the pastor for 20 years, what reason other than political expediency could there possibly be for doing it now?

Two out of three is not bad. But the game is not over. And up to bat next is Hillary Clinton.

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