WATERLOO, Canada — Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics on March 18 came from and spoke to the heart. It was brutally, searingly honest. Nothing he said or could have said will appease the detractors and the naysayers. But their sniping and carping will diminish them and betray their smallness of spirit.
It was historical. Obama traced the roots of America’s racial problem back to the original sin of slavery but pointed simultaneously to the civil rights protections embedded in the U.S. Constitution as the salvation. Neither excusing nor endorsing black anger and bitterness, he planted it firmly in the broad sweep of American history that includes slavery, humiliation and impoverishment. Who else would have had the audacity to connect the history of slavery to the enduring reality of black suffering in 21st-century America?
It was historic. Everybody, but everybody, is talking about “the speech.” People were openly confessing to having been stunned by the power and majesty of the speech and reduced to tears. There could scarcely have been a major U.S. newspaper that did not carry an editorial on it.
Most typically published an opinion article as well. The rave reviews and rapturous responses suggest that it could form an integral element in the iconic speeches that define American political history. It was courageous, as powerful and frank as the typical politician’s mea culpa is weak and calculating. Faced with a crisis that threatens to destroy their campaigns, politicians clarify, obfuscate, bluster, denigrate and diminish as the time-honored strategy for disposing of an inconvenient truth. Instead, asked to wrestle in the mud of race-baiting gutter politics, Obama elevated the discourse and soared high, daring his fellow Americans to follow.
He forced Americans to confront painful historical memories and uncomfortable contemporary realities. He could have protected his candidacy by denouncing and discarding his pastor of 20 years who had presided over his marriage and baptized his children. Instead he chose to protect the honor and defend the integrity of the caricatured pastor while denouncing the politics of divisive hate preached in many of his sermons.
It was hauntingly personal. He pointed out the error of his pastor’s politics by noting that one of his own flock was even now a viable candidate to be president of the country. He weaved the narrative of the nation’s past and future into the story of the lanky kid with the funny name and the kinky hair. While forcefully repudiating his personal pastor’s incendiary rhetoric and racist rants, he placed them in the context of a larger historical and broader black experience, as well as racist beliefs spewed by some white commentators. He stoutly refused to disown the pastor and held up a mirror to blacks and whites alike on their sins and their failure to accept their individual share of the responsibility for the collective malaise. He celebrated his affection for those nearest and dearest — white grandmother and black pastor alike — while cocooning their divisive political beliefs and stereotypes.
It was electrifying. Obama is a gifted orator. This was a speech he wrote himself, Lincoln-like in tone and gravitas. Yet the lilting cadences and lyrical delivery were missing. He was uncharacteristically stiff and formal, radiating intensity and catharsis. Even the numerous spontaneous outbreaks of applause from the small invitation-only audience were tolerated rather than warmly appreciated by an impatient speaker intent on getting his message across.
It was redemptive. Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, out of a nation forged in the crucible of racial conflict, Obama offers the former oppressors reconciliation not revenge. He challenged Americans to understand and embrace “the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”
Fittingly and deliberately, Obama used critical metaphors and imagery from Christianity. Instead of a call to rage and violence bred by frustration, he used the history of racial conflict as a springboard for reconciliation and “a more perfect union,” the title of his speech.
He asked whites to understand black anger rooted in centuries of real discrimination and oppression and he asked blacks to acknowledge white fears based in social dislocation in a profoundly alienating world. He challenged all Americans to join him in confronting entrenched divisions and put their faith in the fundamental decency and goodness of fellow-citizens.
It was presidential. He treated the national audience as adults, not adolescents. Denouncing the treatment of race as a spectacle or fodder for the nightly news, he invited Americans into an intimate and sober conversation on the role of race in modern American society. He distinguished himself aside from all competitors in this and other campaigns in recent memory. As one Internet commentator remarked, “This is who he is; this is why he is running for president; this is why I will vote for him.”
Has he lanced the boil of racial backlash? Probably not. But the unanswered questions and contradictions, not all trivial, is a subject for another essay, another day. For now give Obama his due. If handling a crisis is the measure of a man, he triumphed as no other contemporary politician could have. On this, the most daunting of challenges he has faced in the primary season so far, he kept his cool, held his calm, demonstrated grace under pressure and showed poise on the most unforgiving of public stages. He challenged Americans to join him in the journey to keep perfecting the union and left unspoken the question: Does America deserve Obama?
Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.