March 24, 2008

The Speech [Pt.2]: Of all the passages that have received attention from last week's speech, none have generated more discussion, or controversy, than these:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. 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 have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.


And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him 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.
The latter portion emphasized above, the reference to his beloved grandmother, was the portion that moved me the most, almost to tears. It reminded me of people in my own family, people that I loved, who said callous and insensitive things about people of other races and ethnicities. It brought to mind friends, people who have been generous and kind to me, but whose opinions on occasion have been narrowminded and extreme. It's no wonder that The Speech seemed to overwhelm writers as disparate as Andrew Sullivan and Peggy Noonan. Even a lapsed Catholic like myself has deeply engraved in his psyche that adage best-suited for our morally complex world: "love the sinner, hate the sin." It was a Christian speech, in the most positive sense of the word.

But it's also the portion that has made Obama's critics and foes the most uncomfortable. How dare he draw a moral equivalence between his aging pastor and his octogenarian grandmother, they say. Or, on the other hand, they argue that there's nothing wrong with a white woman muttering cringeworthy "racial or ethnic stereotypes" to her young, black grandson, whether they be about African Americans, Jews, Chicanos or any other non-white group. In fact, more than a few quite disingenuously omitted the last portion (about the racial and ethnic stereotype utterances) in order to stack the deck against Obama, changing the context of the speech.

It's clear that the same portion of The Speech that I found so moving made others protest a little too much. We cannot have an honest dialogue about race in this country unless we are willing to shine the spotlight on ourselves, and our own engrained beliefs. For a woman to subconsciously fear a black man who passed her on the street may well be grounded in a rational fear of crime, but it's also based on the same belief system that in the youth of Obama's grandmother forced African Americans to drink from different fountains and to be redlined from suburban neighborhoods.

It's the nightmare vision preached by the Dixiecrats of yore: if given freedom, black men will rape white women and steal your wallets. It should sound just as ugly coming from Barack's grandmother as it does coming from a James Eastland or a Norman Podheretz. But it was also a sentiment shared not long ago by Jesse Jackson, a fear of young black men, of street gangs and drive-by shootings. Without recognizing both facets, one can't begin to have an understanding of the issue.

In the end, no one ever believes that the stereotypes we possess of others are bogus. There is always some way to rationalize, to believe that while others are irrational bigots, we argue in good faith. The easiest thing for those who don't want to have our prejudices challenged is to caricature, to say that Obama "threw his grandmother under a bus," to use the right's favorite cliche, or that he drew a false "moral equivalence" between the two sets of prejudice, to use the odious stalinoid phrase most favored by those who wish to stifle any debate (since, after all, nothing can ever truly be the "moral equivalent" of anything else).

It is to his credit that Obama chose the examples he did to illustrate the dilemma. Had he ditched his pastor, as some have suggested, and only repudiated the paranoia of some African-American pulpits, it might have played better among swing voters in Ohio and Florida and what-not. But The Speech would not have moved anyone, and it have been just another cheap "Sista Souljah" moment, an attempt by a pol to play to the middle. Sometimes, it's "the middle" that's the problem, and by evenhandedly addressing the issue, rather than skirting it, he nailed his landing.

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