Barack Obama’s speech on race was an uncommonly bold, informed and informing meditation on that ever nagging and always nettlesome matter. It can stand with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” as a historic marker in our struggle to find the high ground beyond the ruts that centuries of racism, slavery, segregation and prejudice have left us in.
The pity is that the speech was called for. Obama has sought the presidency with a campaign run beyond race, but his opponents were having none of that, including Hillary Clinton, whose campaign has been dropping lit matches into the racial tinder and feigning surprise when the flames have spread. The best she could muster in the way of comment on the speech was to say she was glad he had given it.
You bet she was. The Clinton campaign had been keenly going about the disgraceful business of turning Obama into the “black” candidate he had never been.
The immediate provocation for the speech was the recent fad in finding outrageous comments from Barack’s long-time Chicago pastor — not a difficult task — and then hazing the candidate with them.
Never mind, apparently, that no end of white pulpit-thumpers have called on God to damn America for this or that perceived waywardness — as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., for instance, did — without the white candidates who pandered to them being called to account for the unholy exhortations.Obama firmly and convincingly disavowed Wright’s excesses but, shunning the easy political out, just as firmly refused to disavow him personally, as if their relationship, and Wright’s widely admired ministry, were nothing more than the sum of the pastor’s lapses. (With luck, maybe that restraint will short circuit the body-count game in which the Clinton and Obama campaigns have been calling for each other to defenestrate supporters found to have said something untoward, or that could be made to seem so.)
Crucially, and typical of him, Obama went beyond the obvious tropes to locate the source of Wright’s missteps in the lingering anger and bitterness of a generation that bore the full brunt of segregation and fails to understand that transcendence now beckons where once only more darkness seemed to await.
And he equally offered recognition of the legitimacies that inhabit much white racial anxiety, a tender so rarely exampled that you have to wonder whether many white listeners, conditioned to hear Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even when they aren’t present, caught the moment’s important generosity.
Obama called for a politics of common interests that rises above “division and conflict and cynicism.”No small number of commentators — among them Newt Gingrich, who built his political career with just such bricks — promptly dismissed the speech as nothing more than the desperate rattlings of a politician trying to talk himself out of a jam.Thus proving Barack Obama’s point for him.
Teepen is a columnist based in Atlanta. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE