In the middle of his now famous speech on race and politics in America, Sen. Barack Obama claimed that his life story has made him an unconventional candidate. Yet the content of the speech reveals him to be an entirely conventional presidential candidate.
Sen. Obama undertook the speech to deal with some objectionable comments by his former minister. The comments would not attract the support of a majority of voters in this nation so it was a foregone conclusion that Obama would again repudiate at least the most objectionable of them, and he did so.
At the same time, he could not fully repudiate Rev. Wright. As he said, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” Yet affirming Wright in the wrong way might bespeak of a racial solidarity that would alienate the 88 percent of voters that are not African Americans.
Obama’s first move was to claim that he himself was both white and black. This tactic echoes down through the speech. He suggests at many points that he deeply understands both blacks and whites. He will be fair to everyone because he is everyone. He both feels and transcends racial solidarity.
His second move involved moral equivalence. His white grandmother, like Rev. Wright, has engaged in racial stereotyping. Sen. Obama concluded that we are all complex human beings, filled with good and bad traits. Obama also implicitly posed a question: Why are we focusing so much on Rev. Wright when so many whites for so long have said similar things?
And yet the preacher and the grandmother are not morally equivalent. Obama attributes Wright’s statements to anger at the injustices of racist America. Some, though far from all, of those injustices have been overcome. Wright’s mistake is to ignore what progress has been made and to lose hope that more progress might come.
Obama did not exactly justify Wright’s statements, but he provided a context in which they are understandable and perhaps, for some, justifiable.
He offered no such context for his grandmother’s statements. Her unelaborated utterances were simply wrong. Whites, it would seem, don’t get the benefit of the doubt or of a context.
Obama later argued that whites do not feel responsible for the plight of blacks. Thus when liberals bus children to achieve racial balance in schools or impose racial quotas that favor blacks, whites become resentful. Blacks are angry and not without reason. Whites are not angry, they are resentful.
Wikipedia defines resentment as “an emotion of anger felt as a result of a real or imagined wrong done.” In the liberal lexicon of the last three decades, white resentment has meant unjustified and misplaced white anger toward liberal racial policies. It is a false anger fostered and manipulated by evil Republican presidents and campaigns.
Obama uses the term this way. So it turns out that blacks and whites are not morally equal. Blacks have been justifiably angry; whites have been resentful (i.e. not justifiably angry). Yet Obama does not simply condemn whites even though they have been fooled, because he believes whites can become angry rather than resentful.
Lower and middle class whites, Obama argued, are having a terrible time in America. They are losing their jobs and health care and struggling to survive. They should be angry about their plight, but their anger comes out as resentment toward liberal policies.
But the so‐called “middle class squeeze” should have nothing to do with racial politics, he said. The white lower and middle class is being harmed by “the real culprits”: corporations, the special interests, and the rich. These white people can be led to see that the share a common enemy: business, the rich, conservatives and so on.
If that can be done, the black versus white divide will be replaced with a united racial front against the usual villains of the liberal imagination, and this unified power will enact the traditional liberal agenda (health care, protectionism, and so on).
Sen. Obama is a new and surprising talent in American politics; his rhetorical skill has brought him within sight of the White House. However, the substance of his views is quite old and conventional. Obama is a lot like Jesse Jackson in policy substance. Like Jackson, he calls for a multiracial coalition to enact a leftwing policy agenda.
Obama is also a lot like Al Gore and John Edwards in preaching a politics of “Us versus Them” or “the people versus the powerful.” Like them, Obama practices a politics of fear and blame, a politics that has become the Democratic norm in the post‐Clinton era. Like them, Obama hopes to foster enough anger in voters to win the election. In Democratic primaries, blaming small, despised minorities (the rich, the special interests, business) for all the troubles of voters hardly requires courage or leadership. Indeed, it might appear to be the easiest path to victory.
But still, one might wonder: What does Obama’s politics of fear have to do with unifying a divided nation? Or is it that the demons defined in his speeches have no legitimate place in Obama’s America?