Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

A Black Man Articulating White Resentments

I feel winded listening to that speech. I’m sitting in my chair but feeling like I have to catch my breath. It was remarkable and will take some time to process. But here is my quick, gut reaction.
His distancing from Jeremiah Wright’s statements was effective because he not only said he disagreed but why he disagreed.

“But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”


And this:

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.”

I’ve believed that Obama’s primary (short term) task was not to explain what he agreed with and disagreed with but rather why he stayed in the church. His answer on that was twofold: 1) This church does a lot of good 2) Wright brought me to God. I ultimately think that the second answer will be the more effective one. “He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.” Quoting from his book, he said:

“And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story..


For many white Americans it will be the first time they hear Obama say things that only a black politician can say:

“The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

Most remarkably, and most importantly, he attempted to speak to the anxieties and wounds of both blacks and whites. He spoke both as a black man and the son of a white woman. Probably the most extraordinary passage was this one:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.


And this, which is probably the most empathetic I’ve ever heard a black politician be toward angry whites:

“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.”

Embarrassingly, I want to end on a pedestrian, tactical note. Obama had made a mistake in an earlier tatement implying that he had only ever heard Wright speak about loving one’s neighbor. This made Obama seem dishonest (it just didn’t seem plausible) and meant he would have to explain every newly discovered Wright soundbite. He walked back from that a bit in this speech.


“For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

I actually think this was the one paragraph in the speech that wasn’t quite pitch perfect. “Could be considered controversial”? He could have gone farther than that (and certainly has in regard to the clips that have gained prominence).
But in the end, the real risk of the speech was that he dove directly into the central issue of race. He realized that he could no longer “transcend” race by not talking about it. He had to wade directly in. I don’t know whether it will be effective or not. But it surely was historic.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 12:22 pm

One of the most surprising things as I listened was that I realized – even after living through Jackson’s and Sharpton’s camapaigns in the 80s and 90s – is that I’ve never really heard a presidential candidate (or president) give a speech where the sole topic was race. Ever. This was the first.
And I agree… the word “historic” is the first word that comes to mind. Sound bytes from this speech will very likely be replayed for years to come.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 12:36 pm

Steve, by the way, really applaud the great job with the “Founding Faith” archive. Have been exploring it leisurely. Great stuff.
Re: “the speech,” there’s a lot here to absorb. As a body of rhetoric there is much to admire in its techinical excellence.
One objection I had to his speech was his “use” (in the most manipulative sense) of his maternal grandmother. How tasteless of him to claim that she uttered — privately and in confidence — racially insensitive comments. The comparison — and suggestion of equivalence — of her reported comments with the 20+ years of public statements by his pastor does not wash. He had no choice in who his grandparents would be but he did in his choice of pastor. To equate the two is deceptive and is very telling about who he really is.
The woman is in her 80s and still alive somewhere in Hawaii. Would be interesting to get her side of the story. Did she give her grandson permission to share this personally embarrasing story?
Barack reminds me of the commercially-successful motivational speakers in this country who exploit their family history to craft persuasive and entertaining messages. Some of the stories these speakers share often paint unfavorable and embarrasing portraits of family members.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 1:39 pm

I found the speech moving for this reason. I live in a small suburban CT community. Thanksgiving services in our town is an ecumenical happening each year with the clergy taking turns hosting the service and all of the clergy participating in the service. The bottom line is our community embraces our religious and cultural diversity and we our thankful for it.
Barack Obama addressed a problem that the media is partially responsibel for: that is the polarization of people for their ideas and freedom to express those ideas. No matter how reprehensible the comments were from the UCC minister, Senator Obama is not responsible for the comments made by the minister.
I applaude Senator Obama for his kindness, and forthrightness in addressing his relationship with his minister and the larger issue of race in America. I applaude the Senator for addressing the root cause for anger and resentment as it relates to cultural diversity and division in our nation. Bravo and thank you Senator Obama for diplaying the quality of leadership this nation is looking for in a president.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 3:23 pm

One objection I had to his speech was his “use” (in the most manipulative sense) of his maternal grandmother. How tasteless of him to claim that she uttered — privately and in confidence — racially insensitive comments.
I think making the political personal and the personal political shows a hell of a lot more “taste” than nitpicking from someone who never had any intentions of supporting the candidate in the first place.
You people have your own extremely flawed candidate. You’re not going to vote for Obama, so what business is it of yours how he chooses to connect with his consituency?

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Just Thinking

posted March 18, 2008 at 3:28 pm

This is the 2nd time someone commented on Obama referencing his grandmother. After reading that entire speech, that is what one comes away with – how dare he insult his grandmother? Forget Wright’s speeches, THAT is taking a comment out of context! That simply ignores all the positive things he said about his grandmother. A speech like this, what’s being asked of him, needs dramatic examples. He’s lived quite a dramatic life, and it’s led him to where he is now as a person. One could say he’s exploiting his grandma and that’s one (albeit narrow) way to look at it. Another is that he is cutting and peeling away his flesh, so that the American people can look at his guts beneath. It’s having to admit is that as wonderful as his grandmother is, she’s imperfect like all of us. Do you think he actually WANTED to say a negative word about his grandma? Obama is asking all people, black, white, latino, asian, to ask yourself the same question. Have you, a family member, friend NEVER said something that was offensive and had to be behind closed doors? He realized that this race is bigger than whether his granny is ashamed of something he said. He doesn’t love her any less. People are often so critical of blacks using race as an issue, but when he was asked to speak about it, he opened up. You don’t hear black people talking about their white grandmother, because they don’t have one. So is Obama, not white enough for white America. Not black enough for black America? Take your pick, either way, it’s an excuse.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 6:25 pm

I continue to be amazed that in 2008, no one in the main stream media really acknowledges Barack Obama’s “whiteness”. It is testimony to the American history which the speech addresses. The Black father appears to have had little impact on his life, and he was raised by his white mother and her parents, yet those to whom he must give credit can hardly take centre stage, since he is labelled a black man who his running for president of the United States.
With so called conservative Christian values, nobody seems overly concerned that Rod Parsley and John Haggee and the hundreds of White Christian pastors who spout similarly invective rhetoric every Sunday. Christ thankfully is not amazed by our hyprocrisy, but we have to face fact.
Unfortunately for those who would rather not focus on the whole purpose of church and faith and association, the question remains: Why did he stay? Why do thousands stay with pastors and leaders who we know may be misappropriating church funds? Why do we stay when we know that some of our leaders are “living in sin”? Why do we stay? Many times we stay because there is so much more to retain, because there is much more about relationships that the casual observer may notice or even care to articulate. we stay because of friends and family. We stay because we know that our own faith is rooted in a greater purpose. Yes, we have to hold our leaders accountable, but we are all on a journey and we should confront ourselves, that we are all on a journey toward perfection. Let us hold ALL our politicians to the higher standard that we have obviously set for Barack Obama.

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Francois Labelle

posted March 18, 2008 at 7:06 pm

As a french Canadian captivated by your politics and most particularly the Democratic race, I cannot resist expressing my admiration for senator Obama in this speech. I cannot remember being moved so much by the essence of what the man said. The whole speech transcend everything that is beautiful in spirit, humility and honesty. For one of the few time in my life I can honestly say there’s a politician that has a sole! The man inspires me so much I feel like going to the US and volunteer to work in his campaign!! Senator Obama is akin to Nelson Mandela and other great man that left an indelible mark on their generations. This speech will be talked about and analysed to bits for years to come. This is the man who can heal the tarnished image of your country, an image stained by half a century of murderous foreign ingerance, unwarranted wars and crass corporate behavior that has become the hallmark of what America has become in the eyes of the world. America (and the world!)needs a catharsis, senator Obama is your man… my biggest worry is the fact that all the great Americans throughout history have been murdered while trying to bring about meaningful changes and he will not be the exception.

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posted March 18, 2008 at 9:20 pm

Well Done, Barack! Now we can hope that the connection between him and Wright has been explained and the campaign can continue. I’m hoping that somehow Hillary will be the Democratic candidate, but if Obama is, I’ll vote for him Can’t handle any more Republicans in office…McCain doesn’t cut it and Bush is and has ruined the name of the U.S. in the world with the private war he started as well as other wonderful political decisions. (I’m an Independent).

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posted March 19, 2008 at 2:27 pm

Barack’s gratuitous comment about his grandmother’s alleged racial sins is bothersome for a variety of reasons:
(1) The speech was occasioned by the drop in his polling numbers following the uproar over Wright and his connection to Wright.
(2) The questions he needed to answer dealt with his own judgements involving Wright. Why choose him in the first place? Why stick with him for so long? Why wait till now to say anything?
(3) He artfully evaded the questions involving personal culpability by casting the issue in terms of collective responsibility for racial tension in America. His grandmother was never the issue; his pastor was. America’s discomfort with race issues was not the issue; his head-in-the sand judgement toward Wright was — and remains the issue.
Invoking his grandmother was part of a piece — a brilliant rhetorical dodge to draw the focus away from were it belongs. Besides, we don’t even know if what he says about his grandmother is EVEN TRUE? (Why won’t the Obama campaign let reporters ask her?) We do have, however, tapes of Wright’s sermons, all of which are for sale from his church.
Would anyone on this blog do to their grandmother what Obama did to his in that speech yesterday ? Honestly, would anyone? If anyone says “yes” then I say “shame on you.”

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posted March 19, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Hyperbole much, Mel?

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posted March 19, 2008 at 6:25 pm

There is a question that goes unasked in all this discussion surrounding Rev. Wright and TUCC. It goes far beyond the question of why Barack Obama has stayed with the church and to a much more difficult question for white Americans to deal with.
Why do so many people attend, and stay with, that church today? According to its website over 6000 people call themselves members of that church, and the vast majority of them are black. Why do so many people of color attend that church? Why do they stay through the sermons by Rev. Wright where he calls on God to damn America? (Why are we afraid to say the word “damn”?) Why do so many Christians who happen to be black find some sort of home there? Is it because of, or in spite of Rev. Wright’s message?
This is the question we should be asking, but I think deep down we are afraid to have it answered. Do we really believe that there are some 6000 people in the Chicago area who hate whites, hate America, and are praying that God will damn our nation? Or is there more to this than we are willing to consider?

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posted March 19, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Did Barack Obama really dive into the issue of race? Personally speaking, I have been very disappointed in the junior Senator from Illinois – for his refusal to speak about race from a multicultural/multiracial point of view. My white grandfather also used to say things that made me cringe – but I also knew the context of experience from which those remarks were born. Likewise I understood my Filipino grandmother’s anti-American remarks because I understood the context experience from which she spoke. Like Obama, I’ve straddled racial and cultural lines – and I find it disheartening that his search for a racial/cultural self means denying the birthright of his mother. How sad because she was, from what I’ve read, the type of person who embraced the world despite the ugliness; who saw beyond the racial lines; who worked for the change about which Obama so eloquent speaks and Rev Wright seems to believe belongs only to his congregants. Want to really have a discussion on race in this country? Then talk to the AmerAsian community – ask the Korean Americans how they felt when the African American community in LA burned down their businesses simply because those businesses belonged to Koreans. Ask the Japanese Americans about internment camps; ask the native American about life on the reservation; ask the native Alaskan how they feel about the poaching of their natural resources. In other words, race is more than black and white – despite what Wright preaches.

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posted March 22, 2008 at 1:48 am

Obama did a great job in responding to questions,and he made all us aware that there is a part of us that God has’t yet healed. As Christians we have the mind of Christ. We know what is right and wrong. If we are honest,we would applaud Obama message of truth. We know when there is sin in oue hearts. We listern to the right wing news media,and take it as the gospel. My prayer is that every bigot of every race will seek the Lord and be saved. Denying there is bigotry in America,and codemning those who wants to talk about it is sin it self. I agree that bigotry is world wide. All races has it share of bigots. My prayer
is that those who using race to make money and divide this country, to get save through faith in Christ or they will be eternally lost. Making excuses,and trying explaIin away sin,is not the way to go. Repent,and believe the gospel.

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posted March 22, 2008 at 1:51 am

I would like to hear from more born again beleivers. Most of the post sound like right sinners.

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posted March 25, 2008 at 5:49 pm

To answer RJohnson’s question, I would have to say yes, there are well more than 6000 people who share the sentiments of Rev. Wright. Whether black, white, brown, red, yellow or purple. It makes no difference.
For example, Rush Limbaugh spews similar hate over the radio every day, and look at how big his audience is.
Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. Furthemore, I submit that America’s racial, ethnic, social, economic, and political stratification is getting worse, not better.
I’m glad for Obama’s speech, as it amply demonstrates just how far we still have to go to bridge the racial divide. The sad part is that if anyone thinks he has a snowball’s chance of being elected president not only in 2008 but within his lifetime.

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