Barack Obama delivered a much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia today, designed to respond to the sudden firestorm of criticism he’s received for the allegedly anti-American views of his long-time pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
It’s a long and (for a politician) relatively complex speech, but its essence is pretty simple: Obama treats Wright’s perspective, along with the perspective of those most likely to be angered by it, as part of the legacy of racial divisions he wants to overcome in his candidacy, and utlimately, as a “distraction.”
Moreover, Obama categorizes Wright’s rhetoric–which has come across in the now-famous YouTube snippet as representing that enduring stereotype, the Angry Black Man–as generational, connecting to another key theme in his campaign:
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.
There are a couple of remarkable things about that passage. First, Obama is contending that some of the more exotic and controversial beliefs of many African-Americans–the AIDS conspiracy theory being the most notable–are mainly attributable to the bitter experiences of those who actually experienced Jim Crow. I’m reminded of Richard Pryor’s routine about old black men–“there ain’t nobody more racist than an old black man”–who are very conservative in manner and unfailingly polite to white people, until they are out of earshot. In a society in which young black men remain the embodiment of so many cultural fears, this contention will seem counterintuive to people who view Jim Crow as a distant and largely irrelevant evil.
Second, Obama is accepting Wright and his church as flawed reflections of the good and evil within his own community. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me…I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” This is a very old conception of the church–as old as the parish system of Europe, to say the least–but one that won’t make a lot of sense to those Americans who view church membership as an expression of consumer choice, and ultimately, of the spiritual discrimination and good taste of the religious consumer. They will continue to wonder why Obama didn’t just pick up and “move his letter” elsewhere the first time Jeremiah Wright said something outrageous from the pulpit.
How will this entire speech go over? It’s hard to say. It won’t satisfy those who expected Obama to “reject” Wright as he rejected Farrakhan. It will offer fresh ammunition to Republicans who claim the “real” Obama is revealed by his associations in Chicago. It will anger some people on both sides of the racial divide by its flat statement of moral equivalence between black and white resentments. But it may resonate with Americans (especially Catholics) who have loyally attended churches for years while rejecting or ignoring key elements of church teachings.
But more clearly, this speech ups the ante for Obama’s promise to act as a reconciler and unifier. After this speech, no one should be under the impression that he’s mainly interested in overcoming the narcissistic culture-based political conflicts of the 1990s. He’s now casting his candidacy as an opportunity to transcend one of the biggest continuing traumas of the 19th and 20th centuries, and of centuries before that: race. There’s never been much question that he was viewed that way by many supporters. But now it’s explicitly on the table, and we’ll soon find out how much reconciliation and unity Americans really want, and on what terms.