I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy....Missing here, I think, is an explicit acknowledgment that Wright is not merely expressing the anger he feels but that he is leading people into anger, keeping anger fresh and alive.
... Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together...
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough....
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man....
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me...
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...
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up....
Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. [T]he anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
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.Again, Obama speaks as if Wright were only expressing his beliefs, and he does not say that Wright was, from his powerful leadership position, instilling these beliefs in many others.
But the key question isn't whether Obama puts Wright down strongly enough. It's what Obama himself is. Would he, as a leader in the most powerful position, instill this destructive thinking in others? That doesn't at all seem to be what he does, and the rest of the speech is largely a demonstration that he does not:
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.He ends the speech with a saccharine anecdote about a decidedly un-angry old black man who tells a young white woman — Ashley — that he's supporting Obama "because of Ashley." Mustard sandwiches were involved. Did that distract you from what he did and didn't do in the speech?
I'd say he did not do very much — other than to resist condemning Wright and to model his socially acceptable attitudes and generate a feeling — I'm sure you didn't all feel it — that we need unite behind this man if the terrible divisions over race are going to end.
ADDED: Andrew Sullivan felt it: "I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides." And it felt all Christian to him.
Jonathan Chait thinks it worked, but only because Obama is black:
My first reaction is that the speech was extremely smart and intellectually subtle....Oh, bullshit. You may not be trying to be Gerry Ferraro here, but the only nonsexual difference between you and Geraldine is that you're for Obama and she's on the other side. And here's a clue: John Kerry is not very smart.
He may be liberated to operate at a high intellectual level in public because he's black. I'm not trying to be Gerry Ferraro here; let me explain. Candidates like John Kerry and (even moreso) Al Gore were also very smart, but constantly forced to dumb it down lest they be tagged as out-of-touch elitists. Since the egghead image is so at odds with the prevailing stereotypes about African-Americans, he has much less to fear by speaking at a high intellectual level.
Righty Paul Mirengoff delivers a left-handed compliment:
Although Obama's speech is not without its evasions, I consider it a courageous one by usual political standards. He has refused to walk away from Wright's black liberation theology when it might well have been expedient to do so. The rest of us now should have the courage to take Obama at his word and decide whether it is acceptable to elect as president of the United States someone who carries Rev. Wright around as part of him, and who takes his ranting seriously.Kathryn Jean Lopez does a pithy paraphrase:
Damn straight, Rev. Wright is angry. That's how I wound up at his church. That's why I stay there. I'm mad too, I just control it better. Now let's get electing me president so we can all feel good.Of course, that's completely unfair. Even if he can be understood to have said something along the lines of "I'm mad too," he distinguished himself from Wright not in hiding his anger, but in believing we can change the things that cause the anger.
AND: Don't miss Shelby Steele's column in the WSJ (written before today's speech, but on point):
How does one "transcend" race in this church?...
What could he have been thinking? Of course he wasn't thinking. He was driven by insecurity, by a need to "be black" despite his biracial background. And so fellow-traveling with a little race hatred seemed a small price to pay for a more secure racial identity. And anyway, wasn't this hatred more rhetorical than real?...
No matter his ultimate political fate, there is already enough pathos in Barack Obama to make him a cautionary tale. His public persona thrives on a manipulation of whites (bargaining), and his private sense of racial identity demands both self-betrayal and duplicity. His is the story of a man who flew so high, yet neglected to become himself.
Here's what Steele means by "bargaining":
Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain -- and feel affection for the bargainer -- because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.NOTE ABOUT THE COMMENTS: We've gone past the number of comments that will show on the comments page. You can still get to these comments by clicking on "post a comment" and scrolling to the bottom of the "post a comment" page and clicking on "Newer" or "Newest."
ADDED: Michael Weiss at Slate quotes this from me: "I'd say he did not do very much — other than to resist condemning Wright and to model his socially acceptable attitudes and generate a feeling — I'm sure you didn't all feel it — that we need unite behind this man if the terrible divisions over race are going to end." Weiss interprets this to mean that I saw the speech as a failure. But that's not right. I know I wrote "he did not do very much," but that doesn't mean it was a mistake not to do very much. Obama did not condemn Jeremiah Wright. He did not reach for a "Sister Souljah moment." He didn't present himself in a new light. But, in a way — within a narrow band — he did a lot, perhaps too much. It was all very subtle. He tried to be entirely inclusive, reaching out to everyone, and stepping on nobody's toes. He insisted both that we confront race and also that we get past it. There were complex contradictions in what he said, but his smoothly honed language made it possible for us to ignore these difficulties even as we could credit him with taking on an elaborately sophisticated problem. I think he meant to deal with his predicament this way. There's no reason to call that a failure.
AND: Mickey Kaus does a terrific job of identifying many of the contradictions you weren't supposed to notice.