March 22, 2008
I heard the latter portion of Barack Obama's vaunted speech on racial issues as it was being broadcast live from Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, and like most people I was fairly impressed. The Senator sounded thoughtful, candid, and forthright, seeing both sides of this highly sensitive issue, and it seemed he was living up to sky-high hopes he has raised for racial harmony. After I read the whole speech, however, I realized that he blew his big chance. He was trying to contain the damage stemming from the release of the video of his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright two weeks ago, sparking a multicultural free-for-all. Obama dithered for several days while the controversy heated up, and finally gave a speech laying out his vision for America. This was the key passage:
I can no more disown him [Rev. Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown 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 her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. (SOURCE: washingtonpost.com.)
It is perfectly understandably that Sen. Obama would want to show loyalty to his church and its ministers, and that he would want to reaffirm his standing among Black Americans. After all, he is in the awkward position of being an African-American with no slave ancestors, as far as anyone knows. We must also recognize that Obama took pains to criticize the Rev. Wright's sermons in detail, making good points about the changing nature of American society. He made a huge, regrettable error, however: He wrongly asserted a moral equivalence between ordinary racial stereotyping, which is nearly universal to some degree,* and overt hate speech, which has the potential to incite people to commit acts of violence. If you think about it, there isn't much difference between what Rev. Wright was saying ("God #@&$ America") and what radical Islamic militants are saying. Likewise, his comparison what Rev. Wright said to what Geraldine Ferraro recently said is ridiculous. By downplaying the meaning of those words, Sen. Obama has greatly weakened his moral authority.
* When Obama said in a later interview that his grandmother was a "typical white person," he showed that he too engages in racial stereotyping, just like the rest of us.
Andrew Sullivan tried valiantly to defend Obama, but I'm afraid his enthusiasm for the candidate will wane.
Obama is graceful and resilient enought to recover from this setback, but even if he is nominated, and even if he wins the White House, he will still face nagging questions for years to come. Even with his eloquent profession of "faith in the decency and generosity of the American people," it reinforces the suspicion that, deep inside, he shares his wife Michelle's being "ashamed of America." We don't need a leader who carries such a heavy burden. If he does lose by a close margin, his failure to distance himself from hate-mongers may be judged to be one of the decisive factors. If so, the frustrations felt by African-Americans in this country might be too much to bear, and that would be a tragedy for all of us.
Given the latest controversy, such a question on religious identity may seem moot. Sen. Hillary Clinton said in a TV interview that Barack Obama was not a Muslim, but then added "as far as I know." Guilt by (off-handedly suggestive) association: What a perfect example of Clintonian double-talk!