I feel a bit schizophrenic about the speech that Barack Obama gave Tuesday in Philadelphia. The media billed it as his grand statement on race, prompted by the recent firestorm of controversy that has surrounded Obama's relationship with his former pastor. In my view, however, the uproar surrounding this whole incident is not just about race and may in fact be about something even deeper.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright's statements (many of which I would agree with) questioned a notion that is deeply held by the overwhelming majority of American citizens: that this is a fundamentally moral and just nation. Wright did not just speak about the realities of race in the U.S. He forcefully denounced U.S. foreign policy and the notion that America is only a force for good in the world, even when it is committing or abetting horrific acts, such as the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Most Americans simply can't deal with the notion that their country perhaps does more harm in the world than good, or that others might view us with less than total admiration. I think after almost eight years of the Bush administration and its vast criminality, many people's sense of the innate goodness of America has been unsettled. They want to feel good about America again and Wright's statements strike at the source of such insecurities. I think the feeling that Obama might not be totally invested in the idea of a fundamentally benign America (recall the American flag lapel pin flap or the controversy over his wife's comments about being proud of America for the first time during the campaign) and not just the fact that he is black might explain at least some of the incredibly strong reactions to some of the things that his former pastor said. And it definitely explains why he chose to give his speech in front of an enormous phalanx of American flags.
That being said, even tough I take issue with some aspects of Obama's speech, I found it to be largely compelling and even moving in places. While denouncing Wright's particular statements and disavowing any notion whatever that the U.S. or its allies (namely Israel) might be the source of oppression or instability in the international arena, he bravely refused to completely disown the man and the black church community from which he comes. He lucidly explained the history of racist structural inequalities that continue to constrict the lives of African-Americans and other people of color while deftly addressing the fears and resentments of working-class and downwardly mobile middle-class whites. In doing so he identified a common enemy - corporate power - as well as common goals: better schools, healthcare, housing and jobs for all. Before this speech, I was more enthusiastic about the excitement and movement surrounding the man's campaign and not Obama per se. But after yesterday's speech I'm more enthusiastic by the possibilities offered by the man himself. Clearly a lot of the right instincts are there. We have to do the political work necessary to allow him to act on them if he gets elected this fall.