Plenty To Talk About
There were two important aspects to Barack Obama's speech on race, one socio-cultural, and one political. On the socio-cultural level, it's already clear that Obama gave what many feel will come to be known as but the introduction to a much needed and long overdue modern and honest discussion about this nation's still festering racial divide. Dialogue about race has been stuck in the themes and dynamics of two generations past, and Obama wrenched it into the present, and offered what may be the only path for it to move into the future. Having done so, he has claimed a new mantle of leadership, and it is necessary that he continue to lead this dialogue, and that other leaders, and the nation as a whole, step forward to meet him. As Pam Saunders wrote:
Barack Obama is doing incredibly heavy lifting on this issue, and it's certainly was not his initial desire. He personally wanted to steer away the conversations about race and division in this primary cycle, but because of the toxic, misguided words of others, he was left no choice but to take on the mantle.
And yet, he was not afraid to challenge people of all colors in denial that the conversations kept out of polite company need to come out of the closet. All of us need to work through the fear that words will be misunderstood or poorly received. Trust must be built, thicker skin must be developed, and emotional effort must be expended to solve these problems.
But what is not clear is whether this dialogue can take place during a presidential campaign, or even within the context of politics. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were not politicians. Similarly, and on a completely separate issue, Al Gore did not become an international icon until he was out of politics. Some issues are so large and all-encompassing that they require a focus of leadership that politics does not allow. With the economy on the verge of implosion, and a disastrous war still devastating, it may be that Obama's speech was so transcendent that to build upon it will require the transcension of politics itself.
The political impact of the speech is not yet clear. Polls indicate that the Jeremiah Wright controversy has seriously damaged Obama's candidacy, but it is too soon to tell if the speech turned that around. We won't know for several days. It's also not clear how the controversy and the speech will play out, over the political long haul. The Republicans smell blood, and anyone who understands Republican tactics knows that nothing is too vicious and relentless in Republican pursuit of electoral victory. Those Obama supporters who decry the occasionally tough campaign tactics of Hillary Clinton have no idea how relatively soft and civil those tactics have been.
Republicans don't seek merely to win campaigns, they seek to destroy people. Michael Dukakis was as decent a human being as has ever claimed a major party nomination, but by the time the Republicans were through with him, he was an unpatriotic patsy who was going to allow dangerous black criminals to murder and rape white mothers, sisters, and daughters. Al Gore had a reputation as a boy scout, and the Republicans turned him into a pathological liar. John Kerry risked his life in battle to save the lives of his fellow servicemen, and the Republicans turned him into a devious schemer who had failed in battle, lied to burnish his own credentials, then turned on the true patriots who had truly shown courage under fire. There is literally nothing beneath Republican tacticians, and once their 527s get ahold of the Wright videos, you will see him raving on television all day, every day. The question then will be whether the critical swing voters of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri will base their votes on a glorious 35 minute speech or on omnipresent 30 and 60 second attack ads. My cynical opinion is that if they based their votes on 35 minute speeches, George W. Bush's campaign against Al Gore wouldn't have been close enough for Florida Republicans to steal.
I don't know how this plays out. I'm sure both the Clinton and Obama camps are furiously polling it, but I'm also sure the Republicans are doing the same, with a view to November. As someone who sees no major substantive policy differences between Clinton and Obama, a part of me doesn't care about the political fallout. What's most important is that a Democrat be inaugurated, next January. If the speech saves Obama's road to the nomination, we will have to work hard and hope that the nation is ready to rise above the inevitable Republican onslaught. Perhaps it will be too dirty and too vicious, and the swing voters will rebel against it. Such would be beautiful to see. If the speech doesn't end Obama's slide, he will have a new and vital mission, and he will likely grow into one of the most important public figures of this century.
Yesterday's speech didn't end anything. That's both bad and good. It's bad because the Wright controversy is not going away. For the purpose of the nomination fight, the story may have been neutralized; but the Republicans have not even begun to manipulate it. It's good because the speech was not one that people can merely celebrate and then walk away from. It was not a final statement about race relations in America; it was but the introduction of a new way of discussing them. The nearly unanimously stunned response was proof of how desperately that introduction was needed. As Joan Walsh wrote:
Today the speech has gotten almost universal raves, but it will be days, even weeks before we know whether it worked to defuse the Wright crisis. The optimist in me thinks this is one of those moments we begin to have our long-overdue national conversation on race. The pessimist says that the flap over Wright's extremist views, in the middle of an already tense presidential contest, is a terrible way to have it. And yet if it were left to us to choose the time and circumstances for painful debates about race, most of us would probably choose never. So here's our moment. Today Obama laid out a racial worldview that tries to challenge the zero-sum thinking that's pitted races against each other for too long. I don't agree with all of it, but he's given us plenty to talk about.