Obama on the meaning of “We the People”

March 18, 2008 | By | 11 Replies More

Barack Obama has challenged Americans to rise above trite cartoonish conceptions of race.

The full text of Obama’s thought-provoking and impassioned speech can be read here.

Are Americans ready for a candidate who dares to challenge them? Are they ready for a candidate who speaks comfortably of the complexities of race as he has previously spoken of the complexities of religious belief? I truly hope so.

What is America’s basic choice? Here are Obama’s words:

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; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

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. 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.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

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Category: Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are some reactions to Barack Obama's speech on race in America, gathered by MSNBC.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    So we are again faced with an example of the dichotomy between those who recognize that everything evolves (like our society), and those who think that everything is as it always was and can only change in insignificant ways.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    I think we we can regard Obama as a student who has surpassed his teacher in wisdom and serenity.

    [From a post on Soupy Trumpet]

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    If there was any doubt about what we have missed in the anti-intellectual, ruthlessly incurious Bush years, and even the slippery Clinton ones (the years of "what is is"), those doubts were laid to rest by Barack Obama's magisterial speech today. A speech in which he distanced himself from a flawed father figure, Reverend Wright, and did so with almost Shakespearian dignity and honor.

    Jon Robin Baitz, on Huffpo

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I agree whole-heartedly with your observation. I do believe that many conservatives are essentialists at heart. Conservatives are not strong believers in earthly redemption and change (though they do believe in flip-the-switch heavenly redemption]. Bad people will always be bad. They speak of the poor as though the are an permanent subset.

    Their actions betray a belief in a blessed minority of privileged people who should remain affluent and in power because, well, because they just should be. Women, blacks, gays and other outsiders will never completely be accepted–because "they" are different in a monolithic way. Conservatives are fond of quoting Matthew's "For you always have the poor with you," while only giving lip-service to the idea that millions of poor people have shown the resilience and determination to pull themselves up from difficult circumstances.

    Ironically, conservatives cling to a vision of a static caste system, even as American culture deteriorates in tems of wages, jobs, morals and innovative spirit.

    Obama is describing a society that recognizing its capacity to change for the better. Yes, to evolve.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    And now we know that this speech wasn't written by a committee. Barack Obama wrote this entire speech himself. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/3/18/17135/677

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    And on the far right . . . who could have predicted how unhinged neocon radio could get over Obama's speech? Here's an outrageous example: http://mediamatters.org/items/200803190006?f=h_la

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    Did you notice how MediaMatters article quoted the outrageous line several times in several different typefaces, but never actually commented on it? I think they are just trying to woo search engine traffic.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Oh, and Jeremiah Wright was once a White House guest — of Bill Clinton. This photo was published by Ben Smith's blog.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a long impassioned interpretation of what Jeremiah Wright believed and why it's not as outrageous as it is now being characterized:

    Barack Obama may lose the support of just enough white folks to cost him the Democratic nomination, and/or the Presidency; all of it, because Jeremiah Wright, unlike most preachers opted for truth. If he had been one of those "prosperity ministers" who says Jesus wants nothing so much as for you to be rich, like Joel Osteen, that would have been fine. Had he been a retread bigot like Falwell was, or Pat Robertson is, he might have been criticized, but he would have remained in good standing and surely not have damaged a Presidential candidate in this way. But unlike Osteen, and Falwell, and Robertson, Jeremiah Wright refused to feed his parishioners lies.

    What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that "everything changed." To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

    For the full article, go here.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    What did Jeremiah Wright actually say? What was the full context of his "controversial" sermon? This article summarizes the sermon and gives you a link so that you can listen for yourself. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2008/03/21/the-full-st

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