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Posted by on Mar 20, 2008 in At TMV | 34 comments

‘Our Current Polity,’ Redux

In yesterday’s discussion, I attempted to clarify one of the mischaracterizations of Obama’s speech Tuesday re: race in America. That mischaracterization was simply this, that Obama attempted to excuse Rev. Wright by suggesting that “all blacks and all black churches hate whites and [are] racist.”

That is clearly not what Obama said — and after revisiting Obama’s actual words, plus some healthy debate, at least one commenter conceded the point. She then added two more reservations to the mix, both of which I’d like to address in full, because they are similar to reservations voiced elsewhere by others.

The first of her reservations centered on what she perceived as a “missed opportunity”:

… [Obama] could have said that he can’t disown the person of Wright (nor the person of his grandmother) but he can (and must) disavow their racist views. That would have made a stronger point (sort of the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ meme) and would have underscored what I think is his true belief: that we have to accept that some blacks and some whites still harbor resentment which shows up as racism, but we don’t have to consider those attitudes are actually acceptable any longer. We have to tell people like that that we understand their feelings but their feelings will have to be put aside in order to move on from the past.

Later, she wrote:

I see that he came close, but missed the mark – particularly by saying that he could not disown Wright or his grandmother – but then not going on in the same section of the speech to explain what he meant by that.

I’m not sure how to define “the same section of the speech,” but seconds after his remarks about Wright and his grandmother, Obama said:

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not.

An estimated five minutes (out of a 45-minute speech) earlier, Obama had this to say about Wright’s YouTube comments:

… the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, 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 to solve a set of monumental problems …

Then again, an estimated six minutes after his Wright-Grandma comments, Obama said, referring to black anger:

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

The second reservation expressed by the aforementioned commenter involved the years between Wright’s remarks and Obama’s renunciation of them. Why didn’t Obama speak out sooner? Why did he wait until it was a problem for his campaign? Or, as the commenter put it:

… what I see missing is Obama not taking responsibility for having waited until now to condemn the ‘controversial’ remarks. By not explaining that, he comes pretty close to excusing that, as though we all understand that we should just tolerate views like that because we understand where they come from.

I’ll admit: This point bothers me, too, and it’s more difficult to explain. Accordingly, here, I rely on personal experience.

I had an uncle, one of several. He made some remarkably vile, racially insensitive comments during the years I knew him, including voiced displeasure about sharing a birth date with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he was also one of two uncles who — on weekend leave during World War II — defended a black man who was being harassed by a white man. He was also a loving and gracious man to family and friends, immediate and extended. He was also a man who — in his dying days, hastened by lung cancer from years of heavy smoking — experienced many points of contrition and confession, and (I like to hope) redemption.

If my uncle were still alive today and we were both high-profile figures, I seriously doubt I would proactively and publicly condemn his racist remarks. Certainly, if asked about those remarks, I would make it clear that I don’t agree with them and find them reprehensible. But I think I would also, if pushed, refuse to disown my uncle, because much like Obama with Wright, I had seen the entirety of the man my uncle was, not just his occasional, careless, hurtful, inexcusable statements.

Maybe it’s a stretch to apply my experience to Obama’s. But I also think that’s precisely what Obama is encouraging us to do; to find common experiences and build on them.

None of this is to say I’m a 100% Obama fan. I’m not. I disagree with much of what he proposes and I’m (once again) leaning toward McCain for the general election. But in the context of this particular speech, and the way Obama handled this issue, I couldn’t be more impressed or more in agreement.

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