Obama’s Populist Moment

Barack Obama had his populist moment in Philadelphia with his landmark speech on racism in America.

Obama’s speech on March 18 was reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s meeting with Protestant ministers in Houston in September 1960 to confront the prejudice that, as a Catholic, he was unfit to be president. His speech arguing for the separation of church and state defused that issue.

Obama had tried to avoid being pigeonholed as the “black” candidate for president until Geraldine Ferraro, who was with the Clinton campaign, all but accused the Illinois senator of being an “affirmative-action” candidate. Meanwhile, Fox News dredged up a clip of Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, criticizing the US government in inflammatory terms.

Facing the undercurrent of race in his campaign for president, Obama went to Philadelphia to address the controversy over remarks made several years ago by Wright. We think Wright’s comments were taken out of context and actually fit within the mainstream of Christian social teaching, based on the Old and New Testaments (see columns by Rev. Don Rollins and Mark Sumner, page 8), but the conventional wisdom was that the easiest and most politic thing for Obama would be to repudiate Wright, quit Trinity United Church of Christ and find a more conventional preacher.

But the easiest course often is not the right course. As Obama, who grew up largely unchurched, noted, Wright helped introduce him to the Christian faith and was his pastor for 20 years. Obama could no more disown Wright for a few intemperate remarks than he could disown his own white grandmother for her ethnic stereotypes. Instead, Obama made the controversy a teaching moment in an effort to start healing the racial divide. In doing so, he enhanced his credibility as the best-qualified Democratic candidate for president.

In the speech, “A More Perfect Union,” Obama examined race from his unique point of view, as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, who has made good in the United States.

Obama framed Wright’s comments on US domestic and foreign policies in the context of the African-American experience of discrimination, which cannot be ignored. “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect,” he said. “And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of his generation came of age in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. But Obama noted that most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. “Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”

White working-class anger over welfare and affirmative action programs helped forge the Reagan Coalition, he noted. “Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

But racial resentments divide white and black people who ought to have common interests. “Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns—this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Wright’s mistake was that he spoke as if our society had not made progress, Obama said. But the white community also must acknowledge that the legacy of discrimination is real and must be addressed.

“In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” Obama said. “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”

As Obama framed it, we face the choice of accepting the politics of division, conflict and cynicism or we can address issues such as crumbling schools, the lack of affordable medical care, the corporations that have shuttered mills that once provided decent jobs in this country and shipped those jobs overseas, and how to bring US service members home from a war that never should have been authorized and never should have been waged.

“I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation—the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.”

Monied interests have used racial tensions to keep whites and blacks apart ever since they broke up the biracial Populist movement in the 1890s and convinced poor whites that they could keep their status by keeping blacks in a lower status with segregation laws. With his Philadelphia speech, Obama showed progressive populist instincts tempered by a pragmatism that he probably got from his Kansas grandparents. He also demonstrated leadership qualities that neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain has revealed so far.

Clinton’s Lapses

Obama still looks good in comparison with Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq despite flimsy evidence, which was disputed at the time and eventually was disproven, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Then, five years later, Clinton credited John McCain with having the experience to be commander in chief, only to find out that her GOP friend still does not know the difference between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Iran, when McCain accused Shi’ite Iran of training al Qaeda terrorists, who come from the rival Sunni sect. Clinton’s repeated lapses in judgment do not give us confidence in her potential as Democratic nominee for president.

Disenfranchised Voters

When authorities in Florida and Michigan moved their primaries ahead of the dates set by the Democratic National Committee, they were warned that the votes would be invalid for selection of delegates to the Democratic national convention. They did so anyway. Michigan and Florida had what amounted to straw polls that the Democratic candidates at the time agreed would not count toward delegate selection. Now Clinton wants those primaries honored and Republicans—wishing to fan dissension among the Dems—are blocking efforts to allow new votes, which the DNC is open to, but which require legislative authorization. If Florida and Michigan Democrats have complaints, they should address them to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), respectively.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.