Obama's Speech

Barack Obama’s long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright isn’t significant because it suggests that Obama shares Wright’s more controversial views; I have no doubt that he does not. It’s significant because it undercuts an important aspect of Obama’s promise as a politician: Namely, his potential to break the mold of American politics, by transcending both the recent templates for African-American political activity (grievance-based shakedown politics on the one hand, Afrocentric separatism on the other) and the larger red-blue polarization in the country as a whole. His decades-long embrace of Wright, seemingly untempered by any serious qualms about what his pastor represents politically, suggests that he isn’t willing to confront the rhetoric of division and polarization within his own community, let alone in the country as whole. Which in turn suggests that that far from being the man who will tell us what we need to hear, rather than what we want to hear, he's a go-along-to-get-along figure, a man who accepts The Way Things Are and doesn't rock the boat. In other words, that he's just another politician.

I don't know exactly what he should say in the speech that he's about to give. I think he needs to acknowledge – and acknowledge with specifics, rather than generalities – the ugliness of Wright’s political rhetoric. At the same time, I think he needs to remind his audience that this ugliness - what you might call the paranoid style in African-American politics - exists for a reason: Wright, and millions more like him, grew up in an era when it was hard for blacks to say "God Bless America" full-throatedly, and an era when paranoia about white conduct was only common sense, since the government of the United States was effectively engaged in a vast conspiracy against its black citizens. Then, while nodding to the persistence of racism, he needs to talk at length about how far we've come: He needs to argue that in many respects, Martin Luther King's dream of equality has been fulfilled, so that for a rising generation of African-Americans, America has finally become the promised land that their ancestors dreamed of all through the long dark night of slavery and segregation. And finally, he needs to explain why his generation - a generation that can say "God bless America" wholeheartedly, a generation that rejects and transcends the politics of division and fear and paranoia - nonetheless has an obligation not to cast out men like Jeremiah Wright, men who did a great deal of good in their time, but men who are now simply too old to recognize that America has changed, and too set in their ways to enter the promised land. He needs to reject his minister's politics, in other words, in the name of a new generation of African-Americans, while simultaneously suggesting that the bigotries are not necessarily the only measure of the man, and that the appropriate response to Wright's noxious words isn't outrage but rather the mix of pity and tolerance that a white American might feel toward a racist parent or grandparent, who deserves to be loved and accepted in spite of their retrograde opinions.

Could he actually say all this? Can a half-white, half-Kenyan politician presume to speak for the experience of black America? Can a man who clearly loves his pastor go so far down the road toward attacking him outright? Can a black man persuade white Americans that they should feel toward a ranting black preacher the way they might feel toward their own grandparents? I doubt it. But I'd love to see him try.