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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The other side of Obama’s speech

    Barack Obama’s speech last Tuesday in Philadelphia on race relations was monumental.

    More somber than his typically uplifting manner, the remarkably forthright and honest appraisal of the state of race relations imbued it with a power not matched since the ’60s.

    The speech came amid controversy in recent weeks over video of a mixture of crazy and controversial remarks made by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama’s sensible judgment, a huge foundation of his candidacy, came into question due to his close, 20-year relationship with Wright. In the days preceding the speech, Obama’s tactic of staying above the fray of controversy failed him even as he parried questions, leaving him little choice but to jump into the shuffle. On Tuesday, Obama dove in head first, linking Rev. Wright’s comments to broader issues surrounding race relations. The speech’s importance was twofold, for its content on race and for its underlying appeal for an open, improved political dialogue.

    Senator Obama was at times astonishingly candid. He said of blacks, who have been told their real problem is laziness, who are acutely aware of their persecuted history, that they often still hold an anger and bitterness that “”may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers and friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.”” And he spoke of middle-class white Americans, whose families have clawed their way through the immigrant experience and “”don’t feel they have been particularly privileged by their race,”” who hold resentment at blacks’ “”landing a good job or a spot in a good college for an injustice they themselves never committed.”” He made clear that while the anger present on both sides often proves counterproductive, each have solid ground to stand on, and furthermore, linked the two sides together in a common struggle for economic justice. Obama is not the first to make out this link, but he is by far the most prominent person in the past 40 years to do so.

    It is not just that it is exceedingly rare for a politician, particularly in our sound bite-driven times, to be forthright and honest about something controversial and important. It’s the undertone of the speech – albeit not so subtle – attacking the miserable state of our political discourse. For the observation that the sides don’t understand and don’t lend each other any credence, there was the criticism that the camps don’t really talk at all. And this is true of our political discourse in the broadest sense.

    Too often our political debates come down to childish caricature: merely left and right, settling for simplistic, single-phrase evaluations of the opposing position. “”Conservative”” and “”liberal”” have become nasty little epithets meant to destroy our opponents’ credibility. That we make up epithets is inevitable to an extent. Our emotions are wrapped up in these debates, and conservative and liberal positions are real, substantial points of difference. But these points of difference are bound to continue; we will never destroy the other side.

    Demands that a candidate renounce all connection to any supporter who says something strange or dumb, as the pressure has mounted at some point for each candidate, are juvenile. The polarized opposition between political camps where no ground is ceded – that the other side might be right about anything – is childish in exactly the same way. We should not have to lash out at the others – or look back at the party line for reassurance – to be confident in our own judgment.

    Among the strongest points of Obama’s speech was one made in reference to Rev. Wright and Obama’s own grandmother. Of Rev. Wright, Obama said Wright’s done nothing but good for his community and never spoken of in their private conversations nor treated badly anyone of a different race or ethnicity. He praised his white grandmother as a woman who sacrificed for and helped to raise him, but who “”on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes”” that made him cringe. Obama explained that he could not disown these people simply for character flaws or differences of political opinion. More than a call for tolerance, the message was to say that we all have skeletons in the closet haunting us, but that these skeletons are not solely our own. They carry a shared history with them – of outright racism, its institutional forms, and of the people and events that shape the values and attitudes we hold today.

    Talking about the options we have in riding out this election cycle, saying that we can choose to go on with politics as usual, or to stop and say “”not this time,”” is obviously self-serving for Obama. “”Not this time”” fits like a glove with his mantras of “”Yes We Can”” and “”Change,”” and may well become a new one. But stripped of that rhetoric, a large kernel of truth still remains. The essential truth is that to get anywhere, we need to be aware of and accept more nuance when it comes to each others’ political views. Only by bringing our skeletons to light will we begin to see political progress that actually feels like progress.

    Matt Styer is an interdisciplinary studies senior. He can be reached at

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