Barack Obama made a magnificent contribution to the fight against racism and for unity in his March 18 speech on race.
He gave the speech after a week of racist, McCarthy-like hysteria over out-of-context snippets from sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former minister. In his sermons, Wright sharply pointed out the damage done by reactionary U.S. government policies here and abroad. His language was strong, but reflected the anger that millions of people globally and in our own country feel about the oppressive role played especially by the current administration.
The right wing and corporate mass media pulled out all stops to distort and condemn Wright’s views. The target was Wright, but the bull’s-eye was Obama.
Although Obama clearly expressed his views in hundreds of campaign speeches, interviews, press conferences and debates, the corporate/right-wing effort was to paint Obama as a far-out extremist.
Obama had to answer these attacks. He was slipping in the polls.
In his speech, delivered in Philadelphia just across the street from the hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Obama pointed out that the “very core” of the U.S. Constitution — “the ideal of equal citizenship under the law” — contained the answer to the problem of slavery.
Obama’s speech, entitled “A More Perfect Union,” described the gap between the promise of democracy and the reality of race relations in our country. One of the tasks of his campaign, he said, was to “continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
Obama talked about his own racially diverse family and how he is committed to and confident of the possibility that unity can be built. One proof, he noted, is the fact that he has won the votes of millions of white voters even in states with almost no Black population. He pointed out that his campaign has built coalitions of Black, brown and white even in the Deep South.
He took issue with some of the statements of the Rev. Wright that have been aired. But he refused to join the feeding frenzy on his former pastor. Instead he profoundly discussed why Wright and so many others feel as they do. He spent some time frankly discussing the mass thought patterns of Blacks and whites about race, including the feelings in his own multiracial family.
He talked about Jim Crow and the continued systemic racism and segregation in our country, and how racism is holding back the nation as a whole. He called for addressing and bridging the racial divide, and disputed the idea that “your dreams have to come at the expense of my dreams.” He connected the fight for health care, decent education for all children and jobs with the necessity of rejecting racial disunity. Inherent in all of this was a call for working and middle class people to unite in the fight against the economic crisis now gripping the nation.
More than 4 million people viewed the speech live and since then many more millions have heard it — it hit number one on YouTube.
It has started a new discussion on race around the country. Churches, schools, libraries and community groups have said they are using the speech to open up discussions on racial unity. This could be the greatest national anti-racist discussion since the positive reaction to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
The New York Times praised it in their lead editorial, entitled “Profile in Courage.” The Washington Post and other papers hailed it as well Many people, including prominent figures — even cynical TV commentators, said they were moved to tears by the speech. Unfortunately, a divisive approach has dominated in the mass media.
But in a CBS poll, 69 percent of the public said Obama did a good job on the speech, and 63 percent said they agreed with his views on race. Only 20 percent had a negative view.
One does not have to agree with every word he uttered — I did not agree with some points myself — but it is clear that this speech was of historic importance. Its essence was an idea whose time has come. The majority in our country was positively moved.
The Clinton campaign has been trying to win by splitting Black and white. This only hurts the country and their party. The majority seems ready for real change, including rejecting racial divisions and animosity, and this should be celebrated.
The struggle continues, but speaking in the “City of Brotherly Love,” Sen. Barack Obama moved this nation to a better place on its most sensitive question, and by doing so I think he took another step closer to the presidency of the United States.
Jarvis Tyner (jtyner @cpusa.org) is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA.