Obama's Speech on Race: Not Just Empty Words, or Another "Eloquent Speech"

The nation grew a little bit last week when Democratic Presidential Candidate, Barack Obama, give a speech on race unlike any this nation has ever seen. In the very week America thought it had discovered the bone in Obama’s closet that would derail his run for the Presidency, Barack kicked down the door of the closet that holds America’s worse skeletons, its race closet. We all know race is a conversation America never wants to have, because it’s a conversation they can never win. So the race closet, stacked to the top with 400 years of skeletons-from the Middle Passage through today’s colorblind racism, is closely guarded by those who know and understand this vile and twisted history. However, this time America started it by trying to radicalize Obama and racialize Obama’s Minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Barack finished it by stating that if you really want to have a conversation about somebody’s racial views - then let’s talk about America’s racial views, in its totality. It was substantive, and it was eloquent.

Historians are equating it to the great watermark speeches in American history like Lincoln’s “Divided House” speech that positioned him to be President (though he lost the Senate election, he was the anti-slavery candidate two years later), and Kennedy’s “Catholic Church” speech that eased the nation’s concerns that the Pope wasn’t going to dictate to a Protestant nation. But America has never had a conversation on race, per se, in the midst of a Presidential campaign where someone in the electoral campaign led the discussion.

Let Hillary Clinton call this speech “just empty words” or another “eloquent speech.” And let those who claim Barack ain’t “black enough” hang their hat on this speech while those who try to diss his “too black” pastor realize that Barack is “too black” to allow himself to be separated from his church and his community. It was a historic moment. We can truly say that after this week, “a black man” is running for President. And by most accounts, he’s still the best candidate in the race.

Floating that Obama was a Muslim and wasn’t patriotic hasn’t been enough to sink his prospects. They had to try to radicalize Barack by suggesting that his racially radical Minister spoke what Obama deep down believes and inferred guilt by association. This, after trying to suggest that we are in this post-racial era of American politics where race doesn’t matter. We have been shocked back to the reality that race always matters in America, and racial hysteria is only as far as one critical statement of America’s racial past. America is a nation of xenophobes who are never far removed from their racial doubts that Blacks (and others) can acculturate - even lead their Eurocentric society without changing their racially charged cultural norms.

Obama has proven he’s different in every way and even before the Wright remarks - they still had doubts about him. Now that America knows he sat in the pews of a prominent black church and listened to harsh and bitter criticisms of America’s historically improper (and I’m being diplomatic) racial and foreign policies, and didn’t leave or speak out, many are trying to suggest that maybe someone who tolerates the expression of such views might be “too black” to represent all of America.

They’re back to doubting that a black man can represent a white nation (don’t get it twisted-America is still 69% white). America was poised to default on Obama. The default position is, of course, that only a white can represent all the people. Well, name me one President in the history of America who has represented “all the people?”

Every President has acted adversely to the equality interests of black America, being either implicit or complicit in their actions to cover-up the race caste system in American society. Only two, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson, sought to eliminate the legalized race caste systems (of slavery and segregation), though both tolerated and participated in societal norms that affirmed racial inequality and separateness (while they were President).

Obama was expected to do the same, lead the nation - ignore America’s racial faults - affirm the nation’s racial differences (disparities and all) - and not racialize the Presidency by talking about the nation’s past or promoting his own blackness. The thought here is, “White people know he’s black, no need to throw it up in their face” and never blame anything on race - even the obvious racial attacks or the codified ones. As authentic a person as Barack is, it’s his authenticity that has most come under attack from Whites and Blacks. From Whites - in no Black could possibly be this perfect (so hopeful yet non-critical); from Blacks, that no Black could really be “black” and not talk about race. Well, Obama showed how authentic he really is last week, in not running from race and not running from his own. The media could neither “blackball” nor “whitewash” Barack Obama after last week’s speech (and trust me, they were trying to do both). Barack pulled it off.

The truth on race in America set Barack Obama free last week. It is still left to be seen if it sets America free. For a country that always has something to say, most of it (except for the ideologues and the racial extremists) stood speechless and/or complimentary on the nation’s first publicly televised race speech by a Presidential candidate. There was nothing empty about the speech. The closet doors on both Obama’s and America’s racial realities are open. The bone in Barack’s closet is out and on the table; the bones in America’s closet are all over of the floor and may be too numerous to pick up and put back in the closet. Time will tell if America stands ready to punish Obama for addressing the race question, or reward him for purging it of its past sins. We now know one thing, though. Race is still a salient issue in American politics (like we didn’t know).

We just needed someone “black enough” (and honest enough) to talk about it. In trying to castigate one man, the door to America’s race closet was opened by another. The man who would be President, if he would have just remained “post-racial.” Now, he’s black and America’s new race conscience. If America is willing to face up to its past and grow up in the race reality of its future (multi-racial nation), Barack Obama still might be elected President of the United States.

We all know that’s a pretty BIG “if”…but one with which a mostly white nation is grappling.

  • BlackCommentator.com Columnist Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the new book, Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is AnthonySamad.com. Click here to contact Dr. Samad.