Blogs > Cliopatria > Obama's Speech: A Turning Point

Mar 26, 2008 6:19 pm

Obama's Speech: A Turning Point

[Mr. Kaiser, a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, is the author of the recently published book, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Harvard University Press).]

Barack Obama's speech last Tuesday could be a major turning point in American race relations.

This past week will mark a turning point in American history no matter how the election turns out, because it is yet another turning point in the history of relations among the races in the United States. The subject was one I had already been thinking intensively about, having read the second volume (1965-73) of the excellent Library of America compilation, Reporting Civil Rights. That volume, in retrospect, chronicled the collapse of the civil rights movement as a unifying and effective political force, as well as the massive shift in white Southern votes that created a fairly stable Republican majority that endures to this day. The rhetoric of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was 24 in 1965, reflects that shift. The rhetoric of Senator Barack Obama, who was 3, reflects the first serious attempt to overcome it at the Presidential level, and I hope that he can succeed.

So powerful was the democratic ideal represented by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution that it initially inspired even those inhabitants of the United States who were denied its exercise. In the thirty years before the Civil War, black American leaders, Frederick Douglass most notable among them, not only asked for the benefits of American citizenship but argued that the Constitution logically guaranteed them. Douglass wrote a long essay arguing that slavery was, in fact, incompatible with the Constitution. The tortured language the framers used whenever they had to refer to the subject—“excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons,” or, “the migration and importation of such persons “as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit”—testifies to their unwillingness to include any explicit recognition of slavery in the document, and tends to confirm Lincoln’s claim that most of the Founders, having excluded slavery from the Northwest Territories, expected that it would disappear. (In 2002 I heard James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, make a similar argument in an NPR interview on the anniversary of his admission. He commended the Founders’ wisdom in refusing to define more than one legal class of persons.) The Republicans adopted that view in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, of course, but after the Compromise of 1876 white Southerners began rolling them back. Booker T. Washington, a generation behind Douglass, abandoned any immediate attempt to secure black Constitutional rights, but one more generation later, W. E. B. Dubois, born in 1868, and the other founders of the NAACP staked their claim to full citizenship based upon the Constitution. And although DuBois, in whom I have become much interested, took heart from any evidence (such as the Russo-Japanese War) that the white race might not be able to maintain its dominion over the rest of the world, he supported the United States in both world wars, while constantly calling for equal rights at home. (As Barack Obama, who has obviously studied him as well, has pointed out, after 1948, DuBois—then 80—moved sharply leftward, and died in Ghana as an embittered Communist, coincidentally on the eve of the great March on Washington that was to realize his original hopes.)

As I have noted here before, current history pays little attention to the great black leaders of the Lost and GI generations, such as Walter White (who took over the leadership of the NAACP from Dubois), White’s successor Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall. Yet it was they and their white contemporaries who deserve by far the most credit for the end of legal segregation from 1947 (when Harry Truman integrated the armed forces) to 1965 (when the voting rights was passed.) The Silent Generation, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., started the civil disobedience movement that was also crucial to the passage of the civil rights acts, but they were building upon several decades of organizational work, intense involvement in the politics of northern states, and the decades-long legal struggles that led to Brown v. Board of Education. (Those were largely the brainchild of another forgotten leader, Charles Hamilton Houston, a law professor at Howard University who both conceived of the strategy and trained the lawyers, including Marshall, who made it work.) A long list of white GIs, including Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, responded to all that pressure and made legal equality a reality in the mid-1960s.

But the passage of the civil rights acts, as the Library of America shows so clearly, coincided with two other fateful events. The first was the coming of age of the Boom generation, black and white, which had an instinctive distrust of its elders’ achievements. The second was the Vietnam War, which left the government of the United States open to all sorts of accusations of inherent evil. And as a result, by the early 1970s—just a few years after black Americans had at last secured legal equality—younger blacks took it for granted that the United States was nothing but a racist, imperialist nation that had little or nothing to offer to its black citizens. The promise of America, they suddenly argued, was no promise at all. Initially these beliefs fueled a variety of hopeless revolutionary movements, while swelling the ranks of disaffected white voters who rapidly became Republicans. In subsequent decades, even as the black middle class has grown, they have remained popular, especially in academia—and, as we now know, in many black churches. The Reverend Wright is far from alone in entertaining the notion that AIDS was developed by the government to kill off blacks and homosexuals, absurd though that obviously may be. The filmmaker Spike Lee, who certainly should no better, has given that idea some support in public as well.

One could write a book about the development of this new black consciousness over the last four decades, but I will content myself to a few remarks. First of all, during the previous century and a half, racist white politicians, newspapers, and, not least, historians, had spread numerous outrageous myths about black people, and it was only natural that black Americans, as soon as they could speak freely, would return the favor. (The most extraordinary example of white propaganda related to Reconstruction, which southern historians had successfully convinced the whole country by the 1930s had been a disaster and a disgrace, instead of a legitimate attempt to secure equal rights for all southerners.) Secondly, it seems sad that although the sins of white Americans towards their black fellow citizens were certainly bad enough in reality, orators like the Reverend Wright feel compelled to exaggerate, stating, for instance, that the black syphilis patients in the Tuskegee experiment were purposely infected with syphilis by white doctors. That appears to be a complete falsehood—those patients were instead denied standard treatments, both before 1947, when treatments were not very successful, and after, when penicillin proved effective. But lastly and in my opinion most importantly, views like the Reverend Wright’s rest upon a critical misconception. He seems constantly to imply that powerful whites have perpetrated injustices (both real and imaginary) because they are white. I beg to differ. The whole of human history suggests that they have perpetrated them because they are powerful—and that powerful members of other races will frequently take advantage of their power in the same way.

Thus it is well-established, for anyone who wants to find out, that whites did not invent black African slavery—they took advantage of it. Slavery was a thriving institution in much of Africa (and the Middle East) when white traders entered the market in the 16th century and began bringing slaves across the Atlantic. Before the twentieth century any atrocities perpetrated by European elites could easily be matched by counterparts in other parts of the world, and the unprecedented crimes of whites in the twentieth century, I would argue, can be put down only to superior technology, not superior wickedness. The unpleasant truth we must confront about human beings has nothing to do with race: it is simply that power corrupts. Nor does the behavior of female politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi suggest that female leadership will be immune from this chronic disease either. There is no reason to suppose that a black or female American President will be more likely to resist the temptation of power (especially on the international scene) than any previous incumbent—and if they are more restrained, it will be because of individual qualities having nothing to do with race or gender.

And what about Barack Obama?

When I read, and then watched, his speech last Tuesday, I thought it was the most effective speech of the last 45 years or so, an extraordinarily honest attempt both to define the racial crisis (in large part, a crisis of beliefs and opinions, as I have tried to show) in the United States, and to try to move beyond it. But I admit that when I actually watched Reverend Wright’s now-notorious clips yesterday, I was shaken, both with respect to Obama’s judgment and with respect to my own ability to be consistent. Would I, I asked myself, be willing to accept as reasonable the candidacy of a Republican who for many years had attended a church whose pastor railed against godless feminists and homosexuals, and who had blamed 9/11 on them?

I would certainly not vote for such a person, but eventually something else occurred to me. If that candidate (let’s call him John Smith) were to make a speech repudiating those views, specifically likening them to extreme views on the other side of the political fence, and arguing that the United States has to reject such views to move forward as a nation, I would certainly respect him. And as I write those views another thought occurs to me. Such a candidate could never be nominated by the Republican Party in 2008. That was why Mitt Romney could not simply claim a right to be a Mormon, but had to add the standard Republican nonsense about the eternal place of religion in the American public square. The Democratic Party remains the more tolerant party, and Obama simply extended its tolerance to the expression of views like Reverend Wright’s, which, as he said himself, are unfortunately common among blacks. Obama genuinely offered a way out of the box we have been living in for forty years. His opponents have not.

Bill Richardson’s courageous endorsement of Obama moves him a big step closer to the nomination. As of this morning, the three other leading Democrats who could have an even greater impact—John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, and above all, Al Gore—seem likely to remain silent. The betting markets, however, still show Obama as an overwhelming favorite. He will face a brutal campaign against himself, but his personal demeanor on Tuesday suggests that he has the cool to handle it. If he loses, however, it will tell the black community that no black who even acknowledges mainstream black opinion, if only to disagree with it, can hope to become President, and that will be a terrible setback for the nation.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 3/30/2008

Actually, you needn't rely on "suppositions". Senator Obama is on public record quite fully about his attitude toward Jeremiah Wright personally and his sometimes offensive public remarks.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/30/2008

Mr. Luker, The points you question are valid. Senator Obama wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire, which will raise taxes, and Sen. McCain wants to renew the Bush tax cuts, which will not raise taxes. Thus, people will vote against Obama to prevent tax increases. And many will vote against him because he wants to leave Iraq ASAP... The main thrust of my post, however, was to challenge the revolting suggestion that the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright's remarks were the embodiment of "mainstream black opinion." On the other hand, I suppose we could believe they are "mainstream" for the 6,000 who belong to that church, and especially those who have attended for 20 years, been married and had their children baptized there.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/25/2008

Mr. Hughes, Don't be bothered by the internal contradictions of your own argument: like not "cutting and running from Iraq" and, yet, not "raising taxes", either. How many generations of your children and grandchildren will you burden with foreign held debt to pay for a $3 trillion war? If you're so gung ho about pursuing it, you ought to be willing to pay for it.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/25/2008

"If he loses it will tell the black community that no black who even acknowledges mainstream black opinion, if only to disagree with it, can hope to become President..."

Why? If Obama denounces his mentor,who likes to thunder, "God Damn America," it should not be seen as denouncing "mainstream black opinion." I believe mainstream black opinion is closer to "God Bless America," just like mainstream non-black opinion.

There are many other good reasons to vote against Obama, such as the fact his wife was not, until very recently, proud to be an American...

You might vote against him because you don't want to abet socialism, increase taxes, and cut and run from the Middle East. You might not want to support the trial lawyers, school unions, and federal judges who legislate from the bench. Etc., etc., etc. It is not warranted to assume his repudiation in November will be the result of his color. Ideologically, 2008 would be a re-run of 2004, with Obama as the most liberal senator, whereas John Kerry was only 99th most liberal. Kerry lost by 3.5 million votes, and it might be that no liberal of that ilk would win, whether he admires a profane pastor or not.