I am profoundly impressed by Barack Obama’s speech on racism in American politics. It is a speech that Hillary Clinton could not have made about any issue, a speech that John McCain would probably sneer at as ‘weak,’ a speech with broad historical analysis and insight about what has been a central material force or roadblock to progress in North American history from colonial times to the present.
It is a speech that sheds light on the social resentments which have been manipulated throughout American history to divide and conquer working class people. Senator Obama showed what a national leader can be in this speech, however mass media may seek to talk it to death and then forget about it. It is a speech that progressives can rally around the way they did Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches encouraging workers to join unions, denouncing reactionary corporate leaders as ‘economic royalists,’ and pointing to the ‘third of a nation, ill housed, ill clothed, and ill fed’ as those whose poverty government had to address.
Senator Obama addressed the specific rhetorical comments of his former pastor which have given right-wing media the opportunity to use the classic guilt by association tactic against him. He repudiated these comments in strong language, but he didn’t repudiate the pastor or the church of which he has been a member for a generation. He spoke with respect for a man who had preached love, peace and social justice along with the statements that Obama considered destructive and divisive. Obama showed that he would not reduce his pastor or his fellow parishioners to cartoons the way mass media does — that human beings are not either/or, but complicated and developing in their consciousness.
The Senator also spoke about the resentments that many African Americans feel against the dehumanizing effects of institutional and ideological racism, and how those resentments can be counterproductive in defeating racism. He spoke of the resentments of working class whites, many from immigrant backgrounds, who see themselves fighting to make ends meet and sometimes see civil rights gains as their losses, as contrary to their own interests.
He didn’t speak with anger or bitterness, but with clarity. Most of all, he saw U.S. society as dynamic, not static, in the process of development and capable of enormous social advances. Some in the mass media are calling the speech eloquent, rhetorically brilliant, which is true. But what should be important is its substance, its high level of analysis.
To me, it is further evidence that Senator Obama has the potential to become a transforming president in the tradition of Lincoln and Roosevelt, to respond to and provide leadership for masses of people struggling to create a new politics and a new social reality.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.