I was asked to critique why Barack Obama's Speech on Race was good/great - March 18, 2008
Where we should start is the assumption that this speech is good/great. I guess the issue I have always had comes not with the content (I think the content is remarkable) but the timing. I remember quite clearly the context that drove these remarks (and even more problematic for Obama were the comments that came after). This entire speech was a deflection and a political maneuver around Rev. Wright’s salacious comments. Does the context then taint the content?
In this speech, Obama is masterful at playing both sides of the race argument, from society's grind on minorities, to reverse discrimination found in programs like affirmative action. He is amazing at positioning himself somewhere in the middle as you would expect a pragmatist would. His speech intends to unify, not divide, and he delivers the remarks from a vantage point where one would not question his experiences or his positioning.
With that being said he touches very little on the new race that divides our nation, and he focuses on areas that are safe. He ventures very little on the new Brown vs. Board of Education or the segregation developing in politics. The greatest divide we currently face in this nation, is not color or creed, but political affiliation. It’s hard to deny that Obama is a beneficiary of race, or his personal story places him in the persuasive middle of the color argument. This is why the race subject is safe for him. But the destructive forces of political posturing are overcoming this nation and dividing us from within.
Why have we come this far? Why does Obama’s name create sudden divide in the masses? Why do we venture to the point of routing for failure just to be right? Why do we fill the pockets of the egocentric individuals whose sole purpose is to divide this great nation? When will we arrive back to the point in time when compromise was the end solution and not a “my way or the highway” mentality? Obama starts his speech with an illustration concerning the Framers of our Constitution. He elicited memories of the first signing of the Constitution by individuals who were no more philosophically divided then the people are today. The difference? Compromise was sought in all matters. The original patriots were able to lock themselves in a room and work together to arrive at a common outcome. No 24 hour CSPAN to record what today would be perceived as weakness. No media filtration to paint a picture supporting their viewer’s perceptions. No posturing that would not be called out for what it really is. Obama has often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But selective sunlight creates flawed arguments and black marks on political discussions.
We all agree that healthcare needs to be fixed. We all agree that illegal immigration is a problem. We all agree that terrorism threatens our moral standards. We all agree that poverty can be corrected. And we agree that greed is overcoming our capitalistic roots. What we disagree on is government’s role regarding solutions to these issues. But disagreement is not foreign to our political dialogue. Do you think the conservative right was aligned with Reagan’s decision to provide amnesty to four million illegal immigrants? Or the liberal left was aligned to Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act? With 300+ million citizens disagreements will come. The problem we now face is our tolerance with reaching across the aisle to come to a unified agreement.
Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech details very little of this national crisis. Part of me believes that he was naive or miscalculated the political divide we now face. He misjudged the alarming influence the media has on steering opinions instead of presenting facts. Case in point: Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do while on the campaign trail. He passed a stimulus bill. He passed healthcare reform. He passed cap and trade legislation. He increased troops to Afghanistan. Yet his popularity has never been lower.
We as Americans have disingenuous dialogue based on differences not similarities. We seek opposition not unification. We are color coded, not by skin color, but by geography and ideology. We seek to stereotype, not by pedigree, but by affiliation.
The hard reality is that we have no one to blame but ourselves. We do not demand the serious conversation needed to repair the divide. We cater to entertainment instead of enlightenment. Our sources of information are limited to 45 second sound bites; hardly enough information needed for compromising and identifying. In Obama’s speech I remember distinctly his awareness of the success this great country afforded him. He stated that no other country could have vaulted a man from his background to the levels he has now ascertained. As fear and anger creep into our discussions I wonder if ideology becomes the new skin color, and party becomes the new religion. If there is one overarching theme I share with Obama’s speech, it’s that reality needs to drive our perceptions, not perceptions driving our reality.
(My favorite speech Obama has ever delivered was right after he lost the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton)