Mar 18, 2008

The Ashley Speech*

How will history judge Barack Obama's speech today on race relations in the United States? How will voters?

Had Obama delivered it four months ago, it might have been just another speech - good or bad, maddening or insightful, depending on your political leanings and tastes. But the context here is different. The words were being spoken by a leading candidate for president.

So far, I've only read a few analysis pieces. Some, like this one from Roger Simon at Politico, seem bogged down in a fundamental misreading of the speech. To think it was an attempt to explain a wrongheaded relationship or make amends to those who might have been offended is to focus on the trees.

Simon says: Where it was weakest was in explaining the very reason for the speech: how the inflammatory, even repugnant, comments of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are understandable.

That may be what some people wanted from Obama, but that clearly wasn't what he was trying to do. Instead, Obama opened the window on racial division in America and showed where Wright fits in. He played the ultimately race card and dared his critics and the media to oversimplify the issue, and dared everyone else to acknowledge the Wright inside themselves.

James Carney at Time magazine seems to get it. Here's his long first graf (remember when ledes had space to run, like mustangs on the plains...):

Politicians don't give speeches like the one Barack Obama delivered this morning at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Certainly presidential candidates facing the biggest crisis of their campaigns don't. At moments like these — when circumstances force them to confront and try to defuse a problem that threatens to undermine their campaigns — politicians routinely seek to clarify, diminish and then dispose of the problem. They play down the conflict, whatever it is, then attempt to cut themselves off from it and move on, hoping the media and electorate will do the same. What they don't do is give a speech analyzing the problem and telling Americans that it's actually more complicated than what they believed. They manifestly do not denounce the offensive comments that stirred up the trouble to begin with and then tell Americans to grow up and deal with the fact that those same remarks, however wrong and offensive, are an elemental part of who they are, and who we are.

Indeed. The speech is more than unconventional. It's shockingly different, unlike anything we've seen since America got eaten by the television set. There are no easy bites for the nightly news, no sections that can stand alone on YouTube.

Obama also did something I've never seen a politician do before, regardless of their race. He gave voice to the lingering bitterness and fear that plagues white America, without condemnation or condescension:

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 committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

For four years I covered Pasadena as a reporter. It's a city where wealthier whites long ago separated themselves from poorer blacks and where poorer blacks increasingly feel threatened by a growing Latino community. Race dominates much of Pasadena's civic life. It's no different than a lot of towns. When I read this speech, I thought about the complex web that links all of these people together, but often leaves them feeling stuck.

But, again, the question for Obama is whether this was good politics. I'm anxious to see.

*Another thought, now that I've read more dissections of the dissections of the speech. I think that the speech will work as intended, over time. It is a sunshine disinfectant, rather than chlorine. In the short run, the conservative gaggle will continue hammering on Wright and flame worries that Obama is a Black Manchurian Candidate just waiting to visit his radical black ideas on America once he's elected. But I think Obama succeeded in articulating something true about our culture, and the truth will linger on longer than the Wright controversy. Maybe the speech isn't enough to win him Pennsylvania, but it will staunch the white-flight from his base of support. Most importantly, it will influence the superdelegates, who are the only thing standing between Obama and the Democratic nomination.

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