Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Senator Obama Speaks With Empathy and Compassion About Racism in America

by Norman Markowitz

I have just read the text of Barack Obama's Speech on Racism in American politics and I am as a first impression profoundly impressed. It is a speech that Hillary Clinton could not have made about any issue, a speech that John McCain would probably sneer at as "weak," a speech with broad historical analysis and insight about what has been a central material force or roadblock to progress in North American history from colonial times to the present.

It is a speech which partisans of socialism (which Senator Obama is not) can see as focusing on the social resentments which have been manipulated throughout American history to divide and conquer working class people. Senator Obama showed what a national leader can be in this speech, however mass media may seek to talk it to death and then forget about it. It is a speech that progressives can rally around the way they did Franklin Roosevelt's speeches encouraging workers to join unions, denouncing reactionary corporate leaders as "economic royalists," and pointing to the "third of a nation, ill housed, ill clothed, and ill fed," as those whose poverty government had to address.

Senator Obama addressed the specific rhetorical comments of his pastor which have given right-wing media the opportunity to use the classic guilt by association tactic against him. He repudiated these comments in strong language, but he didn't repudiate the pastor or the Church of which he has been a member for a generation He spoke with respect for a man who had preached love, peace and social justice along with the statements that he considered destructive and divisive. He showed that he would not reduce his pastor or his fellow parishioners to cartoons the way mass media does--that human beings are not either/or, but complicated and developing in their consciousness.

He also spoke about the the resentments that many African-Americans feel against the dehumanizing effects of institutional and ideological racism, and how those resentments can be counterproductive in defeating racism. He spoke of the resentments of working class whites, many from immigrant backgrounds, who see themselves fighting to make ends meet and seek civil rights gains as their losses as counterproductive to to their own interests.

He didn't speak with anger or bitterness, but with clarity. Most of all, he saw U.S. society as dynamic, not static, in the process of development, and capable of enormous social advances.

Some in the mass media are already calling the speech eloquent, rhetorically brilliant, which is true. But what should be important is its substance, its high level of analysis.

To me, it is further evidence that Senator Obama has the potential to become a transforming president in the tradition of Lincoln and Roosevelt, to respond to and provide leadership for masses of people struggling to create a new politics and a new social reality.


wilfrido said...

I thought Barack Obama's speech on race in America was superb. He obviously has an intellectual depth and breadth unparalleled by any other contender. But there is another question, a political strategic one: is the white working class worker in PA, Ohio, MI, etc raised to the ideological level where they can put Rev Wright's leftism behind them? Rev Wright was right on a few topics but so many of the 6 or 7 clips sounded like a Leftism that had not matured out of "an infantile disorder".

Harold said...

You know, I hear so much of this "infantile disorder" nonsense from so many people in the CPUSA, a party that is supposed to be revolutionary in a Marxist sense, and it really bothers me when it is used to attack people who are speaking the truth.

Let me take this opportunity to state on thing quite clearly. Rev. Wright’s comments regarding 9/11/2001 and racism in America are not controversial – because they are absolutely correct. This is not even something that should be up for debate – it’s quite obvious.

Had our government not relished in the facts that the blacks of the Gulf Coast were bruised, battered and beaten down by the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, racism would still be an issue. Had the government not done everything in its power to practically ensure that New Orleans would be destroyed, racism would still be an issue. Had “old-fashioned justice” not been enacted in Jena, Louisiana, racism would still be an issue. Why? Because centuries of slavery and oppression are not forgiven overnight, especially when the race war is still going on underneath the pretty white surface that the media paints for us to see.

Had our government not turned the Middle East into a virtual U.S. military base, al-Qaeda would likely not exist. Had our government not economically, politically and militarily backed every single Israeli atrocity against Arabs, al-Qaeda would likely not exist. Had our government treated people of the Middle East with respect and dignity, instead of regarding them as pawns to be used in its own game of resource-grabbing, al-Qaeda would likely not exist. Had our government respected the sovereignty of third world nations and not beaten them down with economic and military domination, al-Qaeda would likely not exist. Had the U.S. government not built an empire seeking to encompass the entire planet, al-Qaeda would likely not exist.

Make no mistake – the 9/11/2001 attacks were atrocious, and to be condemned. But in light of decades of U.S. terrorism and aggression against the peoples of the Middle East and every other oppressed part of the planet, they are easy to understand and to be expected. Much in the same way that Iran would be logically insane to not at least be looking into building a nuclear bomb as a deterrent to U.S. threats of aggression, militant Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East would be insane to not be taking some sort of violent action to resist the U.S.’s imperialist hegemony. People can only take so much brutality; Were I a citizen of the Middle East that had watched as the U.S. turned my world into a theatre of imperialism, I might have strapped the bomb to my chest as well when it became apparent that my governments were going to bow down to U.S. demands.

Obama made a fine speech, and I respect him for making it. Norman is right that no one else could have or would have made such a speech, and I can even see where the comparisons to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech are coming from. I even understand why Obama had to distance himself from Rev. Wright. But let's not mince words, comrades. Rev. Wright was right, and we all know it.

the Jaded Prole said...

You can bet the right will try to make this a basic part of their attack strategy repeating it ad nauseum but I think it will work against them exposing their own racism.

wilfrido said...

Of course there were statements in Rev Jeremiah Wright's texts that reflected the righteous anger of the dispossessed around the world --but I thought what we are talking about is the election of a progressive president with an activated movement around him? And Marxists know that a progressive president of the USA -- however left his movement -- must manage the American republic and the US empire. Is anyone in doubt of these realities? I am convinced that Obama must be very careful of
his company to be elected. Sorry,
Rev Wright may be a great pastor but he's hurting Barack Obama's candidacy. And he comes across like Howard Zinn or Norm Chomsky.
I hope everything in the candidacy isn't messed up by the sermonizing
of an intemperate preacher.

Harold said...

You know Wilfrido, I'm not sure he hurt Obama that much. Obama came back with that very impressive speech (with more content than anything Hillary or McCain has spoken on) that everyone, including Republicans, has been raving about, even drawing comparisons to MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech (as I mentioned before). Rev. Wright may have lost a few votes for Obama, but the speech more than made up for it, I think.

Still, I understand what you're saying, and you're right - he does have to be careful of his company. But I think we should be careful not to expect too much from this supposedly progressive candidate. I like Obama very much, but he's still a corporate democrat, a bourgeois politician, and we've heard all of these promises and rhetoric before. We can't get our hopes up too high - after all, if the Democrats, Obama included, offered so much, there would be no need for the CPUSA.

If we had a truly progressive president, he would not be "managing the Empire" - he would be disassembling the Empire and restoring sovereignty to the Third World.

Harold said...

I saw Anderson Cooper's interview with Obama last night, and Obama continued to impress. He made a point of saying that he did not condemn Rev. Wright for criticizing America, because there is a fine history of dissent in America, but for the incendiary language he used.

He's distanced himself from the Rev. just enough to not throw too many voters from the train, while at the same time defending the spirit in which Wright made his comments. I'm still cautious, but there does seem to be something very special about Barack Obama.

wilfrido said...

Harold, I think we are coming to the point of seeing our political agreements about the Obama candidacy and the role of the USA are greater than any differences?
But maybe one thing I haven't said is my hope that Obama ,if elected, will be in a position with our coalitions and the strength of his constituencies to enact broad economic and political reforms. Of course Barack is a centrist corporate Dem, but we are in financial free-fall, the war is
draining the coffers and etc... History's forces pushed another corporate Democrat -- FDR into enacting The New Deal. I am not hoping the economy collapses (that really would be a nasty leftism) but I think a "dialectical breakthrough" may be happening. And I haven't had this inkling since the early 70s.
I am no fan of imperialism Harold, but a President can only be seen to responsibly
manage America's "interests". If worldwide progressive forces gain strength in the coming crisis then the pres can and must respond. That is how I see change unfolding in nations bound by American chains.
En lutte, wilfrido