Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"In order to form a more perfect union..."

Could the speech have really been that good? I missed the live telecast of Barack Obama's speech on race from Philadelphia yesterday, but made a point to tape it because it figured to be something special and I thought it would be worth watching later on. The gushing enthusiasm and hyperbole that I heard on the evening news and talk shows, however, was close to unbelievable. How often do you hear that level of praise from jaded hosts and pundits?

Yet I had several e-mails from my friends (some of whom are plenty cynical themselves), sending me a link to the speech's transcript online and saying how inspirational it was. So last night I watched the speech, reading along from the text that had been made available.

Scott Warheit said it perfectly at his blog, Quo Vadimus: If real life were like The West Wing, yesterday would've been the day that Obama won the presidency. And reality now has a chance to run parallel to scripted television drama. The speech was so acutely tuned to the racial divisions that divide us in this country.

[...] for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.

[...] a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. 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.

Some might criticize Obama for not denouncing his spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, more emphatically for the incendiary remarks included with his sermons. And over the weekend, I suppose I would've preferred (or perhaps I expected) him to distance himself. But too often these days, I think we're quick to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, separating ourselves from those whose views we might disagree with, while forgetting the place our friends and colleagues hold in our lives. In politics, this might be even more true. Anyone who can't help a candidate's cause is left on the curbside and told to go away.

This isn't the same sort of speech, so I'm really not trying to compare the two, but I remember my father telling me how inspired he was as a University of Michigan student when John F. Kennedy spoke on the steps of the Michigan Union and asked young people to take advantage of the opportunity to make a difference in this country and the rest of the world. Dad joined the Peace Corps shortly thereafter, and I literally wouldn't exist if he hadn't made that decision.

Obama isn't asking anyone to give two years of their lives to an effort such as the Peace Corps. But yesterday, he did speak of how we have an opportunity to make a difference in this country, to come together, instead of working to remain apart. And in looking at Obama, and learning about his life and the people who have raised and influenced him, it's clearly apparent that this isn't just rhetoric. He is the embodiment of races and ethnicities joining together, or as he put it, forming a union.

How many other politicians, let alone presidential candidates, can you imagine making such a speech with the authority and credibility that Obama brought to the podium yesterday? Shouldn't such a man who understands our differences, and has worked to bridge those gaps, be the person we elect to our nation's highest office? Doesn't that send the right message to the rest of the world, as well?