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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma

Obama's speech on race and Wright will go down in history, beside Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech, as a defining moment in America's conception of itself. Its organizing trope is the oxymoron in the preamble of the Constitution -- the aim to create a "more perfect" union. Obama's overarching vision is of an America that's a work in progress. He embraces the commitment to "perfecting" while portraying the instruments -- Wright, his own grandmother-- as flawed but but fundamentally to be embraced as instruments of progress.

With regard to Wright, he repudiated the words but not the man. He set Wright's anger in full historical and cultural context and explained precisely how his own thought differs:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made, as if this country– a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Talk about audacity -- in affirming what he gained from Wright, even as he repudiated his bitter and paranoid view of America, he paired Wright's role in his development and affections with those of his own grandmother. Without self-aggrandizement, he effectively identified himself as the locus of the unity he wants the nation to strive for:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
That is absolut Obama. He demonstrates the strength of his commitment through criticism. He pairs Wright and has grandmother as parts of his, and our, identity to be embraced.

The speech was anything but narrowly personal; it addressed the predicaments and attitudes of the entire nation. It included compressed and accurate capsule portraits of the disabling force of racism on blacks and the anger against race-based privilege in whites being whipsawed by the eroding power of workers in the U.S. Obama acknowledged the legitimacy of anger on both sides and challenged both to move beyond. He identified forces -- larger than individuals but products of human agency too -- that he invited all of us to recognize as the true adversaries:

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.
Obama's signature mental and rhetorical move is to double back. One of his favorite grammatical structures is "just as." He consistently recognizes at least a core of legitimacy in points of view he seeks to rebut or transcend. And so, while 'black anger' and 'white resentment' are presented as forces to transcend, there's this acknowledgment:
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama issues a challenge to all who would make their religious belief a basis of teaching to make it universal - to appeal to those outside the faith not on the basis of the authority of the scriptures but on the evident rightness of the values you take away. So, here, his call for national unity boils down to the simplest scriptural precepts, which Obama is at pains to convince us are universal:
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
Obama has put the ball in our court. No one in his right mind could listen to this speech and come away believing that Obama secretly harbors racial resentments or anti-American sentiments. He has delved into his own identity, and our national identity, and called on us to acknowledge that we are all wounded, we are all flawed, and all part of an unending project to form 'a more perfect union.'

Related posts:
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

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