It was, in parts, a lovely speech. It was far better than I expected, and I am not one to underestimate Barack Obama’s skill at constructing cathedrals with his words.
Rhetorically, his address in Philadelphia represented a historic achievement. The Democratic front-runner, the first viable black presidential candidate, showed that a liberal can, in fact, abandon the calcified talking points and buzzwords of racial discourse that have slowed progress. Democratic politicians have carried the baggage of black victimology and white guilt for generations. Whenever Republican candidates have tried to advance our politics without such baggage, Democrats have yelled, “Here, catch,” and crushed them with it.
This, for me, was the thrilling part of Obama’s speech: For a moment, he put down the albatross.
He sang the praises of the Founding Fathers and the implicit promise they made to all Americans, not just to white men. He denounced his former pastor’s denigration of the “greatness and the goodness of our nation.” He partially acknowledged the moral legitimacy of what he too narrowly calls the American “immigrant experience,” which rejects the idea that a man today is responsible for the sins of others long dead. He recognized that the black community is too quick to blame outside forces for its own problems. He blamed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s biliousness on an antiquated worldview enmeshed in a “static” view of this wonderfully fluid nation.
Yes, he refused to fully denounce Wright, but he managed to seem like he was grounding his refusal in love and personal loyalty while still making it clear that Wright’s words were unacceptable. In effect, he says he loves the sinner but hates the sin. In this age where politicians throw their inconvenient passengers under the bus after the first pothole, this was refreshing even if it was intellectually wanting.
But oases can reveal themselves to be mirages.
Obama proved he’s capable of dropping the baggage of yesteryear. But he also proved he’s even more adept at picking it back up.
“I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork,” Obama said, seeming to want credit for his political bravery. “We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue. ... But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.”
But then, he insisted that we do, in fact, dismiss Wright as a distraction. Indeed, Obama says that pretty much any inconvenient discussion of race is a distraction from what America really needs: a huge expansion of the welfare state. Obama says our racial problems can be healed with more money. By “investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.” The path for blacks, Obama insists, requires “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 who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”
Sigh. Here we go again.
For all the wonderful rhetoric and tantalizing promise of Obama and his speech, there’s not much that is actually new here. This was largely a restatement of Jeremiah Wright’s indictment of America, delivered in University of Chicago parlance instead of South Side Chicago diatribe.
The old baggage has been replaced with shinier suitcases, but the contents are the same as ever. Black America’s problems can be solved by spending more money on the same old Great Society programs. Any talk about black America’s problems that takes the eyes off that prize is a “distraction.” And, yet again, white Americans can prove their commitment to racial justice by going along with more big government. My hope for something better proved too audacious in the end.