Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama and America's Racial Stalemate: A Counter-wedge to the Southern Strategy

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.

Obama has just delivered a speech (which he wrote himself) for the history books. I won’t go into a full analysis but like any memorable speech from the American scene, his included the themes of; American exceptionalism, generational progress, religious freedom and tolerance, and of course, founding myths of American democracy.

You can read the entire transcript here.

But judging by the initial big media coverage, this was just another politically motivated, tactical campaign speech. For example, The New York Times headline reads; Assessing Race in U.S., Obama Calls Pastor Divisive. And the Washington Post; Obama Confronts Race in U.S. “Presidential candidate tries to stem damage from divisive comments delivered by his pastor.” Not surprisingly, Fox News headlines; Obama Won't 'Disown' Pastor.

The speech on the one hand sets out to answer the controversies around inflammatory statements made by Obama’s friend and pastor of his church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. While he has publicly condemned Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he takes the opportunity to place what he defends as Wright’s understandable frustrations within the context of racism and oppression.
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety… The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
And this;
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Obama both confronts and embraces the racial tension within himself and American society.

I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.
I can no more disown him [Reverend Wright] 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.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

He defies the post-racial media meme and directly engages the legacy of racism, challenging contemporary White and Black perceptions. This in and of itself was groundbreaking for contemporary American politics.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

It's simply one of the boldest and most thoughtful public speeches on race in recent memory.

However, there is another message, a deeper message which may be lost on those only paying attention to his sober discussion of race. Early in the speech Obama alludes to what he proposes is unique about his candidacy for President;
In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

But it is at the end of the speech where he sets up his underlying argument for his candidacy;
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.

He directly challenges the Republican "Southern Strategy" as he appeals to poor and working class, but especially Whites. Obama does not whistle past Dixie. Instead, he revives the ole Southern Populism in a multi-cultural and inclusive language. This message would not have resonated in say, 1985. But the economic conditions which created the White Southern Middle Class are simply not what they used to be.

Here he lays out his populists messages;
...Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children... The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should have been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

Many on the Left have been critical of his embracing of “moderates” and “independents” at the expense of Liberal and Progressive positions. However, it now seems clear that Obama is trying to forge a populist counter-wedge into the 40 year conservative Southern Strategy, breaking the racial stalemate. This is the kind of transformational politics which usually only succeed during major social and economic upheaval. It’s yet to be determined how well this message will play out among the general public but the unpledged Super delegates will have no doubt gotten the message.

While this speech may be remembered most for the candid language on race and racial tension, Obama also presented the most economically populist message of his campaign. He has finally defined his vague message of “change we can believe in,” providing some concrete vision. Barack Obama has outlined his philosophy to break the Southern Strategy and forge a generational neo-progressive, new New Deal coalition.

UPDATE: Ari, one of the historians over at The Edge of the American West has an interesting perspective. He doesn't place the speech in the top 10 of all time but I think his analysis confirms my point that we certainly haven't seen anything like it in recent memory.
The most obvious historical parallel is with John F. Kennedy’s decision to take to the airwaves to rebut charges that his religion disqualified him from the presidency. But Kennedy often delivered speeches in moments of crisis. Including, after he was elected, an inaugural address, at the height of the Cold War, that forced Americans to consider their responsibilities as citizens.