Barack Obama on Racism in America: a new tool in the toolbox

Posted on March 23rd, 2008 in Politics by Robert Miller

I was unable to watch Barack Obama’s speech on racism last week, but finally managed to do so late last night on YouTube, where, by then, it had been viewed more than 400,000 times. I did hear a lot about the speech through the news media and also on the C-Span Washington Journal which I try to catch in the mornings. It was a moving speech, one very consistent with Obama’s strategy of trying to appeal to both sides of our gigantic racial divide. But, for once we heard from a politician speaking to his audience as if they were adults rather than naughty little children, as Mark Shields commented on the Jim Lehrer PBS news hour on Friday. While Obama condemned Pastor Wright’s racist remarks, he also emphasized that we had to understand their origins and reflect on their cause. This was a major speech for Obama and not without risk as it came at a time when Wright’s comments grabbed headlines and everyone was watching to see which way Obama would squirm and whether he would commit poor political judgements. The political pundits I listened to before seeing the speech for myself, suggested, that by refocusing attention on Wright’s speech, Obama ran the risk of giving additional exposure to the issue, which might be best left to die of natural causes. I always dismiss this kind of advice about political risks, as it always seems to be coming from advisers who are trying to apply a micrometer to politics rather than the yardstick or the mile ruler that should be used for such numeric exercises anyway. It was supposedly Wright’s speech that stimulated Obama to give his, but you had the impression that Obama had this one written some time ago, wanted to give it and was waiting for an opportunity which came last week in response to Pastor Wright’s speech and Geraldine Ferraro’s comment, the latter of which was unnecessary, and an obvious bad cop ploy for Hilary.

With Obama’s speech on racism, he introduced a powerful new tool and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture in his political toolbox, one which he should use often. This is one case where redundancy may be needed to have this one sink in. He asserted that racism in America, real as it is, is being exploited by the special interests in Washington to keep America divided while the middle class is continuously repressed and corporate America gains in its control of government and our social policies. The extent to which his speech has been lauded and accepted implies that the country may finally be ready for an additional insight into their political divisions and Obama may turn out to be the best possible messenger for this reality check. His speech in many ways points the historic finger to the Republican Party, without naming them. It was the Republicans who manufactured the current state of our divisive nation. After Goldwater’s stunning defeat in the presidential election of 1964, he encouraged the party to recruit the southern Democrats who were increasingly¬† disenchanted with the Civil Rights movement. To me this was highly unethical, but it was a marriage made in heaven and it worked! Nixon’s southern strategy and that of every Republican candidate since, has been to appeal to the South with an anti-racial posture to create and maintain the¬† political alignment that has dominated American politics for that past 25 years (when Ronald Reagan campaigned in Mississippi, he refused to go to the site at which the civil rights workers were murdered, but instead went to a staunch Dixie town that heralded its racial and southern heritage). The sooner we recognize that the current political alignment is nothing more than a re-alignment based on another iteration of slavery, we might be able to get on with the nation’s business. But Obama can play the racial issue in an entirely new way, thanks to his speech of last week. He can point the finger to those using race as a dividing tool for political gains, not social ones. Anyone raising racial issues can be accused of subverting the discussion on health care or the war in Iraq. Perhaps only a black man could use this tool effectively. But Obama is a black man with intelligence and he comes with the expanded forebrain missing in the Republicans–the capacity to look longitudinally at our problems. You must have that capacity if you are going to address health care and other issues, such as our own complicity in contributing to 9/11.

In my opinion, we only had two Presidents in the 20th century who had the capacity to lead because they grasped what the country needed, and did so by taking a longitudinal view of where the country was and where it needed to go. FDR partially succeeded in his mission, but his untimely death allowed Truman to undo much of what FDR hoped to achieve in the post-war period (for one thing FDR didn’t want to let the French back into Vietnam (Indochina), which Truman agreed to, partially because the French were able to “dupe” the Americans by telling them they wanted to go back to help America fight communism: Truman was too naive to see that the postwar world was more about nationalism than communism). The other leader was JFK, whose untimely and still unexplained assassination cut him down before we had to chance to see his plan unfold, or if he really had one. While I liked JFK, I thought his brother Robert had the right stuff and was in the process of creating a new political alignment until he too was was cut down during the tragic election of 1968. It was that election, and the 1968 Chicago National Democratic Convention, that started the unraveling of the Democratic party coalition. Thus two of the leaders that were special for the country and one of the emerging candidates all had their contributions interrupted or shortened by untimely death. Let us hope that Obama gets elected and breaks that tradition.

Now it seems that we have an opportunity to elect a new, unique politician, who may be able to rival FDR, JFK and RFK in the visionary skills department. Moreover, it seems possible, that by electing Obama, we have the opportunity to have a President that, for the first time in a very long time, has the vision to address the most critical needs of this country without huge distractions. Iraq is bad, but the fix is straightforward and fairly simple. Although Bush has mostly ignored the war he started, you can’t ignore a $150 billion exodus of money each year, when you are borrowing every penny of it. But, the fix for this one is easy if only because the vast majority of Americans want to leave that war, calling it whatever you want, as long as you don’t label it as an anti-terrorist campaign, which is what McCain will do and he probably doesn’t have much of a choice. In contrast to the situation that Obama may confront, FDR had the depression and WW II to deal with and JFK had the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the latter of which came far closer than we thought to sparking a nuclear war. So Obama will be somewhat unencumbered and free of huge corporate obligations by the nature of his campaign financing, itself a modern miracle.

With Obama’s major speech on racism tucked into his political agenda, it will be interesting to see how often he uses the new tool he created for himself last week. If the calls into C-span following his speech last week are any indication of what the Right thought of it (many thought he had committed political suicide), then Obama will have plenty of opportunities to pull his new wrench out of the tool box and tighten the bolts on those who are using race issues. So, it’s quite a different response when, instead of saying, “it’s unfortunate that we still have racism in America,” you instead say that “these are the forces and the people in American politics that have little to do with race and everything to do with political repression and keeping the middle class down.” Racism prevents us from getting a national health care system, not because of racism per se, but because the racism card is exploited to artificially divide America along a fault line that doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. So, I look with great interest to see if Obama can forcefully apply this tool and turn the table on those who persist in using race, on one side or the other, outright or subtle, as a means to divide and conquer rather than pursue serious issues. Racism as exploitation of Americans is real, but it has never been as explicitly stated as Obama did in his speech on racism. That is one reason why he is a cut above.

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