Left In Lowell

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March 19, 2008

The Best In Us

by at 11:33 am.

I finally had a moment to watch Obama’s speech just now. No matter if you are white, or black, or brown, or any other hue; no matter if you are conservative, or liberal, or moderate; no matter who you are, you are doing yourself a disservice not to watch this speech. Written by Obama in an age where no politician ever seems to speak his own words without a cadre of speechwriters, taking, head on, the criticisms of both “sides” of the race debate, it is arguably one of the best speeches on race ever, and stands next to such historic moments as we hold these truths to be self-evident or I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, or give me liberty, or give me death! You may think that’s over hyped rhetoric. I only tell you to listen to it and then judge.


I quoted some of the most powerful paragraphs and thoughts from the speech (I’ve bolded a few telling phrases). Click on the link to read further.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

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.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committ ed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means 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 whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

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. Not just with words, but with deeds – 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. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

24 Responses to “The Best In Us”

  1. kpem Says:

    This is bad. I heard at the grocery store and at the Doctor’s today people talking about the “real” Obama. I understand the long standing anger in the black community and where it comes from, but who would choose to listen to a minister preach hate on a day of fellowship. This should not just be about black, white, hispanic as everyone that walks into a church that says damn America should have the decentcy to stand up, walk out, and never come again. He made a big mistake. He is a politician and needs to be careful who he associates with. That being said, I hope no one forgets absolutely everything else he stands for and lets this flaw in judgement go.

  2. Michael in NH and Pawtucket Says:

    Perhaps there should be a link to what this video is in response to.

  3. waittilnextyr Says:

    For clarification, kpem, when you say:

    “but who would choose to listen to a minister preach hate on a day of fellowship”

    I’m not sure you are aware, but he was in Miami on the day of the sermon by Rev Wright that has been repeated many times in the past week. He may have been there for similar sermons, but not that particular one that is so offensive to most people.

    In any case, I certainly appreciate the ideas and principles that he expressed in his speech, and thank Lynne for making it so readily available for those of us who missed it in its totality. I expect it will be an historic speech, and hopefully one that we will follow to better times in our country. A potential turning point, let’s hope we take the opportunity.

  4. Lynne Says:

    If I had a nickel for every time there was someone I respected, even who was a big part of my life, who said things that I disagreed with on a fundamental level, I’d get real rich.

    Let’s start with my parents, who are wonderful people, who do wonderful things, and are generous and good, but who sometimes reach into very old parochial beliefs and turns of phrase that wrench my gut.

    Look, anyone who blames Obama for a couple of inflammatory things his pastor said is being overly sensitive. And they have obviously not watched the speech, either, because Obama addresses it. It would be SO much easier for Obama to have distanced himself and denounced the preacher, that’s what most politicians would do, but he did something much more brazen and bold than that. He embraced that pastor while at the same time chastising him while at the same time understanding where that anger was coming from.

    Agree with Obama or not on the issues, you cannot say he didn’t take the nuanced, intelligent stand NOR did he talk down to us or pander to us, he took the hard road, the one where people will still blame him for every stupid thing that guy said because Obama didn’t come out and curse the guy’s name.

    Let’s see if we can be as mature as that. I know I find it real difficult to understand and love the flaws in people around me. But it’s an elevated soul who tries.

    RE a link: it’s been all over the media for days, overplayed and in your face. I will not perpetrate the same crime of linking to one statement from one guy that’s played over and over. It’s ridiculous. If you don’t know about the situation than Google “Obama pastor” and you’ll find plenty of people who do.

  5. Lynne Says:

    Oh and Michael, I wasn’t razzing on you in that last line, just frustrated by the stupid media who is more interested in tearing something apart rather than actually take the time to contextualize ANYthing.

  6. Fran McDougall Says:

    I listened to it in FL as it was given. What an amazing candidate! How wonderful that he has no speech writers. I bet he has no fund raisers also.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I would be more impressed with Obama if he didn’t give a prepared speech via tele-prompter but rather honestly answered questions about the issue when it was first reported. But Obama doesn’t know how to answer tough questions in real time. He needs to have a prepared speech……20 years of voluntarily listening to this hate? And subjecting your children to it? Racism and hate is poisonous no matter where it comes from. A leader of true principle would not sit by and listen to anything even approximating what I heard from Rev. Wright. A real leader, the kind I want to lead this country at a time of war and intense economic struggles, would have gotten up and walked out or vociferously objected a long time ago.

  8. joe Says:

    I’ll razz him.

    Perhaps there should be a link to what this video is in response to.

    Oh, good lord, yes! I heard there’s someone who a) lives in Madagascar and b) has an internet connection who doesn’t know why Obama gave that speech.

  9. joe Says:

    It’s frustrating. We finally have a leader showing us a way out of the trench warfare that race relations are in this country, and since it threatens Republicans’ political power, they’re all picking away at the scab to try to keep people at each other’s throats.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    No one would blame Obama if his parents were seperatists as you can not pick your parents. (My dad says some doozies and all you can do is disagree) He can however switch to a church that is all inclusive. He does want to be the next president. That being said, I hope everyone saw McCains Dumb mistake and this becomes history. (Sorry but I do not think his speech will)

  11. joe Says:

    I go to a church where they’re always yammering about abortion.

    That’s not why I go. As a matter of fact, I find it rather annoying, and wish they’d stay out of politics entirely.

    But I’m not quitting my church because I disagree with what I hear in a sermon once in a while. Sheesh, how shallow would someone’s religious faith have to be to turn their back on their church, their religious community, because of politics?

  12. Mr. Lynne Says:

    The alternative narrative that would have happened had he gone the other way: Obama’s the guy who wanted to be president so bad he threw his pastor under the bus.

  13. joe Says:

    He can however switch to a church that is all inclusive.

    Totally. Maybe the majority-white United Church of Christ, for example.

  14. Lynne Says:

    Who’s linking to Jacoby??? That person is completely hopeless. Jacoby is one of the dumbest persons on the planet, and that’s not a personal attack, that’s the truth. Caught writing more dumb things than anyone else at the Globe. Sorry, Anon, you lose the test of intelligence. Especially since you couldn’t even be bothered to put in a nickname. Next!

    joe: exactly. This is ridiculous. In a discussion about this candidate’s religion, everyone wants to be the first to cast stones. You all remember what the Bible says Jesus said about that, right?

    RE: prepared speech. I agree, he should have addressed this earlier. But you’re pissed because he wrote down what he wanted to say to the American people??? Like, maybe, every president or candidate since the dawn of time? Like, Abraham Lincoln who wrote his Gettysburg speech on the train on the way there, and who took the time to write out his principles carefully and thoughtfully in all his other amazing speeches? Give me a break. Yes, there are reasons to question Obama’s judgment from time to time. But not for writing a speech and giving it. Yeesh, people, with the standard you want candidates to live up to, you would have thought Lincoln was a putz and voted for the other guy.

  15. waittilnextyr Says:

    It is too bad that we are so entrenched in our ideologies that we would criticize someone for having written the speech he was about to give. And I detect a bit of innuendo from an otherwise astute poster that would suggest maybe he did not write the speech at all. Disappointing.

  16. Émile Says:

    I watched last week as ABC shopped this story around for three days before any other media picked it up. And even then, I saw it elsewhere termed as the “ABC report”. They finally got traction with it, and I was both ticked off and upset. Not so much for Obama’s candidacy, but because I never saw the same rabid coverage of, or linking to the Republican candidates of Pat Robertson, and the others like him. But as this has evolved, and after hearing his speech, I am beginning to feel that this is a huge moment. I think the media trashing has backfired. I think it was important that he wrote this speech and that he addressed issues head on which many Americans would rather sweep under the rug. I think we prefer to pretend that certain glaring facts are not true and wishing them so will make them go away, whether it be racism, foreign policy incompetence, our perceived innate superiority in whatever topic might come up, etc. He is speaking the truth to power. They don’t want to hear it. But I think this is bigger than it appears.

  17. joe Says:

    I’ve never felt like a politician was being straight with me about something difficult before. At least, not at this level.

    Barack Obama didn’t insult our intelligence two days ago. Jeff Jacoby insults my intelligence in every column he has ever written. Obama looks at you and me as people to level with and speak to as mature adults, and Jacoby looks at us as sheep to be led around with emotional language and obvious half-truths.

  18. Mr. Lynne Says:

    The most ’straight’ talk I ever remember hearing from a politician was Mario Cuomo’s farewell address after leaving politics. Of course, he had to be leaving politics to let the ’straight’ stuff through the cya filters.

  19. Kpem Says:

    Straight talk… I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he said

  20. Michael in NH and Pawtucketville Says:

    > Oh, good lord, yes! I heard there’s someone who a) lives in Madagascar
    > and b) has an internet connection who doesn’t know why Obama gave that
    > speech.

    I was surprised that there wasn’t a discussion post when the original videos came out. But there was one for the speech. There are lots of folks that don’t watch television (I’m one of them) and that spend a good amount of time on non-political things.

    It seems odd to me that there are so many Obama supporters here when Clinton won Massachusetts pretty handily.

  21. Lynne Says:

    1) I was having a slow blogging week when that silly pastor thing went down (and by the way, just preceded by the McCain/Hagee thing that the media friggin’ ignored…also, we’re ignoring some pretty scary stuff about Hillary’s “spiritual adviser” too).

    2) I don’t address everything in the world on this blog. It’s impossible.

    3) It was so damn stupid and hypocritical I wasn’t about to fall into the trap the rest of the media did. I hope I’m at least better than that.

  22. Lynne Says:

    Oh and by the way, when there IS something legitimate to question about Obama, I have posted on it. Just the same as I have gone after Patrick when there was a reason - but that’s what being reality based is. There is no reason to go after Obama on this pastor thing. In fact, some of the stuff he said, though he said it in very inflammatory and even racist ways and I disagree with that, were not much different in substance from things I’ve said on this blog. The US has sort of made its bed and is now lying in it, isn’t it?

  23. Michael in NH and Pawtucketville Says:

    > also, we’re ignoring some pretty scary stuff about Hillary’s
    > “spiritual adviser” too).

    That’s pretty interesting stuff. Perhaps Hillary would be very good at healing the religious divides in this country.

  24. Michael in NH and Pawtucketville Says:

    > There is no reason to go after Obama on this pastor thing.
    > In fact, some of the stuff he said, though he said it in
    > very inflammatory and even racist ways and I disagree with
    > that, were not much different in substance from things I’ve
    > said on this blog.

    That it was all over the news (I don’t watch television but that’s
    what I read) and that Obama had to come up with another speech on
    another topic to try and get the monkey off his back implies that it
    is a matter for discussion.

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