Obama’s Speech on Race

Taking a break after finishing the first draft of my Nietzsche paper, I would like to write something about Obama’s speech (full text here) that he gave this morning. It is probably the best political speech I have heard in my life time, short as that may be, and I have a very strong feeling that the speech will be remembered historically, in the context of other great political speeches of this country, long after people will have forgotten the immediate political context that gave rise to it.

What Obama says about race is in fact not controversial, or even profoundly new. But I give him tremendous credit for saying it, because that is the problem we have in our political discourse today: very few people are willing to tackle the subject of race relations head on with anything remotely resembling sensibility, moderation, and subtlety.

Too often, the political discourse on race falls into the following three categories:

1) That race is no longer something that we need to worry about, because slavery was a long time ago.

2) That race is the explanation for every social inequality in this country, and this has both its black radical and white liberal variants. In other words, this is a game of playing the victim and blaming “the man.”

3) That “race” is itself reverse racism because it discriminates against whites who did not personally participate in slavery or oppression. This is mostly done by very right-wing commentators.

Of course, there is some element of the truth in all three categories: we have made some progress toward racial equality, we still have elements of systematic racial discrimination in our society, and we do have people who feels, rightfully in my opinion, that they should not be punished for the sins of their fathers.

What I like most about Obama’s speech is that he acknowledged the elements of truth in all three, but rejected the people who over-simply and reduce any discussions on race to caricature, hysterics, and naked political manipulation.

He didn’t sugar coat the fact that America has always had trouble reconciling slavery with its professed ideals, and he does this in the very beginning of the speech, when he points out that the Constitution allowed the slave trade. He didn’t try to ignore race and pretend that racial harmony is now achieved–he rightly points out that there are deep-seated, but unspoken resentment among blacks and whites toward each other.

But more importantly, he argued that this resentment, both black and white, has a legitimate basis because of our historical legacy: blacks because they have suffered from a legacy of systematic discrimination; whites because they feel that they are punished for things they weren’t personally responsible for.

And this is where I have to applaud Obama, because he tried to walk a very, very, very delicate and fine line. But ultimately I think he is correct, because there are indeed legitimate reasons for both blacks and whites to be deeply unsatisfied with the legacy of slavery and systematic discrimination. That he is willing to come out and say this is courageous in my opinion, because like I said before, most political discussion on race quickly degenerates into either victimization and finger-pointing.

Instead, Obama asked people to actually stop and consider the other side’s point of view: in other words, he called on people to try to understand each other, instead of demonizing each other as either “white oppressors” or “welfare bums.” He points out that demonizing is easy–it has been the basis of many kind of politics. That he had faith to believe that people can overcome such politics is telling, and more importantly, brave, because he is essentially staking his entire campaign on this faith that people can get over the old divisions.

And that is what matters to me: because I am deeply, deeply, deeply dissatisfied with how political discourse is conducted in this country. It is exactly like Obama says: it’s too easy to demonize, and most politicians find that temptation too hard to resist. That Obama is at least trying to redirect the political discourse onto something like a honest, substantive discussion on very difficult issues is admirable in my point of view.

Ultimately, the political reality is one of complexity, contradictions, and nuances that don’t fit “purity tests” of ideology, and it is hardly ever, if it was at all, a reality of either-or, black-or-white, men-or-women, old-or-young, Beatles-or-the Stones. I give Obama a lot of credit for giving people a lot of credit, based on his belief that they can in fact think for themselves and come to independent judgments that do not fit neatly into some ideological categories one way or another.

Interestingly enough, I find Obama’s conception of politics to be closely aligned with Hannah Arendt’s conception of politics: that is to say, politics is the result of many different people acting together. And that has been the theme of Obama’s campaign: to build a broad-based coalition that acts together to solve problems that they can’t solve on their own. It is refreshing to hear this kind of talk, because for too long the republican ideals of this country have lain dormant. Instead, what prevailed was a conception of politics as a zero-sum game in which a gain for blacks is automatically seen as a loss for whites, a conception of politics which is above all else, a fight between special interests whose outcomes are determined by who has more money and more resources.

This is why I was extremely moved when I read the speech. The first time I read the speech, I was struck by its nuance, by the fact that it actually made an argument that required the reader/listener to pay close attention to follow its balancing act–a speech, in other words, that didn’t treat everyone like idiots and cleave to the lowest common denominator.

The second time I read it, I was moved, almost to tears, because for once someone put some faith in people’s ability to change things. I have been following and studying American politics for as long as I could speak English, and this is the first time that I have seen a politician who really and sincerely believe that people can transcend the petty divisions created by other politicians to exploit.

In this case, inspiration IS an asset, a huge, irreplaceable one, because if people do not believe in what you are saying, no matter how well-planed, how well-executed your policy prescriptions are, they will not be effective. If Obama can truly and really get people to believe that it is time to move on beyond the old political fault lines and act together, then he will have done something monumental.

But of course, my internal critic, one who has probably read too much Carl Schmitt, will say that any such “transcendence” will be only temporary, since politics is premised upon the creation of distinctions between self and other. That might be true, I am inclined to say, but maybe it’s time to move beyond “race” as the distinction. After all, even Carl Schmitt claims that political distinctions and struggles are creative forces: and for too long the old racial distinction has stifled any kind of meaningful change.

Yet some might still argue that I have no dog in the fight, since I am neither black nor white. But I reply that problems such as tremendous inequality in education, criminal punishment, healthcare access, social capital are not simply “their” or “our” problems–they are everyone’s problems. And here I am laying all my cards on the table: I conceive of citizenship as being a member of the body politic, and as such, a problem in one part of the body is a problem for the body as a whole. I conceive of citizenship as more than merely an entitlement for rights-protection; I conceive of citizenship as being fully invested in the community to which one belongs. In other words, I am a dyed-in-the-wool, hard-core, old-school Republican: not the Republican in the sense of the Republican party, but Republican in the sense of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Rousseau.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the entire speech. It’s a shame that the speech was given at 11 in the morning to a small cable audience. This should really be broadcast in its entirety on public networks, because we all know what happens in the news cycle, especially on cable: soundbiting the shit out of a nuanced speech, quoting out of context to distort.


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