Obama on Race

Come on, this is a great speech. I have no idea whether it’s a great speech tactically: clearly some people will hear or think what they want to hear. But this is one of the few speeches by an American politician in my lifetime that has both elegance and intellectual substance to it.

Additional comments. Look, I’m sure it’s not hard for any of you who read this site to see why I like Obama as much as I do. This speech really captures it. It’s got nothing to do with his race, which is why I found Ferraro’s comments so irritating. Obama’s central argument in this speech very much mirrors the kind of work I’ve tried to do in my own blogging, which is to commit to seeing things as other people see them before I set out to criticize them, as much as I’m able to do. It doesn’t do any good to get on your high horse and complain about all the people in the world that you think are vile and horrible and stupid if they represent some kind of situated, lived world. (I guess you can go ahead and blast someone that you think is uniquely horrible and stupid in their own special individual manner, but that seems a lot of energy for someone who doesn’t matter much in political or intellectual terms.) You have to make the commitment to trying to understand people in their own terms, to find out why certain ways of thinking and speaking and acting flourish in their world. Then you’re entitled to criticize, if you want, but now your criticism is going to be entangled in that understanding of a lived world, and limited by it.

I know some of you think that this vision is a kind of weakness in the face of malevolence. I just don’t see any choice. I’m not saying that both political and intellectual life need this sort of approach because I’m a goody two-shoes. I think this is a kind of pragmatism. This is what politics is, what politics has to be. This is what transformation needs. Otherwise, the best you can hope for are momentary, transient achievements that are destined to be reversed almost as soon as they are accomplished. There isn’t enough power in the greatest political mobilization imaginable to abolish significant groups of people who experience history and society differently than you and people like you experience it.

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8 Responses to Obama on Race

  1. Absolutely, Tim. This was a truly great speech. Obama works in multiculturalism, angry white males, downsizing, the civil rights movement, poverty, the Founding Fathers, etc., etc.—all while firmly denouncing, in detail, numerous statements by Rev. Wright, but never wholly rejecting his pastor and the church community Wright built and the contradictions and justifiable anger that make up who Wright his. And it all comes out as a solid, non-condescending, inspiring, artful piece of rhetoric. Read it, and think about it. Look at the words; look at the structure of the thing, look at how it pulls together ideas and segues from one topic to another, without ever sacrificing the moral invective and inertia generated by his preceding points, all the while remembering to touch all the necessary bases. It’s brilliant, comparable in general excellence to Reagan’s “bring down this wall” oration. You just don’t hear working politicians deliver stuff this smart and this complex and this comprehensive very often, certainly not now since technology has killed off most of our speaking and listening skills. I’ve been interested in Obama and even admiring of him for a while, but until now, I never really caught any of his”magic.” But with this speech, I felt it. If this is really how he puts ideas together, than we are looking at one of those true rarities, a comprehensively (rather than short-term focused) thinking politician.

  2. withywindle says:

    It’s a good speech. All the critiques over at the National Review about its slipperiness also apply.

  3. Dance says:

    I’ve been ignoring the entire campaign as much as possible, but I actually watched most of that speech.

    A tangent that struck me, as I just got a reminder from my uni about political advocacy in the classroom, is that although the speech would be a great reading/source for any class touching on race in contemporary US, can’t be done right now.

  4. Dance, I’m seriously considering adding the speech to the texts I had out in my American political thought class, for whatever that’s worth.

  5. Dance says:

    Awesome. Your comment certainly articulated why I wanted to teach it while listening to it, in ways I hadn’t yet put together. I guess in American political thought, no one can accuse you of interjecting politics into the classroom, but without a McCain speech to put next to it, I’d be concerned that a member of the conservative college movement would leap on you. I think keeping an eye out for stuff like that is part of the Campus Conservative Battleplan

    Then again, maybe it would be seen as more biased if you put a McCain speech next to it.

  6. Brian Ulrich says:

    This is actually where I made my Babylon 5 analogy – he seemed to move steadily from “What do you want?” to “Who are you?” to “Where are you going?”

  7. JonathanGray says:

    Dance, it’s not necessarily a problem to use; it just needs careful framing. After all, I’d want to use it as a statement on race and about ways to look at race in America, not as a statement that Obama should be the next president. This is a speech about one issue (albeit a damn big one), and though, as Tim suggests, it also a models a way of engaging in discussion over and above that one issue, students — just like the general public — could still think, “wow! what a speech? But I still like Clinton / McCain / Gravel / Nader better.” Or one could see it in cynical terms as a calculated piece of rhetoric, yet still engage with the ideas therein. In other words, it can be taken out of the context of the campaign and analyzed in and of itself. Bias isn’t about putting something in a classroom, it’s about how and why it’s put there.

  8. lkyoder says:

    Hey, guys, did none of you notice the one-line dis on Palestine?

    I’m (almost) totally swooning over this speech except for that one line about the “hateful ideologies of radical Islam” as if anything coming from the Palestinian point of view is equivalent to (Twin Towers) terrorism. Talk about reductionism.

    Anyway, as for using this in the classroom, right now, I share your enthusiasm. But I also know that it’s essential that our students understand texts in context. I’m not sure that’s possible in this moment (especially given our own enthusiasm ;). I can sorta kinda imagine giving them the text of this speech as an in-class assignment where they had to connect it to other readings we’ve done (which deal with vantage point and crossing borders and the like), but right now it would still feel manipulative to me.

    My take: if you think the ideas are sound (and aren’t planning to retire at the end of this semester), then wait.

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