The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 72/No. 14      April 7, 2008

Obama speech on Blacks
in U.S. prompts discussion
(front page)
A March 18 speech on race relations by Barack Obama helped convince a broader layer of the U.S. ruling class that he is competent to be president for the next four years. It also opened a discussion on racism in the United States in the big-business media, on factory floors, and college campuses.

In the days following the talk, the Democratic Party leadership quickened its process of lining up behind Obama. The Florida and Michigan parties ruled out the possibility of redoing the primaries in those states, a maneuver that could have helped rival Hillary Clinton.

Opinion pieces in major dailies began presenting Clinton as a pariah for her refusal to drop out of the race. William Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who held senior-level positions in the William Clinton administration, formally endorsed Obama.

Obama’s speech was a rare instance of a major bourgeois politician acknowledging that discrimination against Blacks continues to exist in housing, education, employment, and all other aspects of U.S. society.

As such, it registered changing social attitudes brought about by the struggle for Black rights. It reflected the fact that the overwhelming majority of the working class, including workers who are not Black, do not want to roll back the clock on social gains of the last half century.

The talk was a departure from how Obama had conducted his campaign to that point. It was a serious policy speech, not empty phrase-mongering about “hope” and “change.”

Obama has campaigned as a multiethnic candidate capable of uniting voters across racial lines. He has distanced himself from struggles in the Black community and instead promoted, as an ABC news reporter described it, “the postracial unifying sheen of his campaign’s promise.”

Speaking at the 2004 Democratic Party convention, for example, Obama said, “there is not a black America and a white America… . There’s the United States of America.”

The speech came after an escalation of race-baiting in the presidential race. Geraldine Ferraro, a member of the Clinton campaign’s finance committee, told the press that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.” The implication that Blacks somehow have it easy set off a wave of controversy, and Ferraro resigned from Clinton’s campaign.

Around the same time clips of sermons by Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor at the church Obama attends, began circulating on the internet and TV. In one, Wright says, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” In others, he presents the drug problem in the Black community as a U.S. government plot.

“We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic,” said Wright in 2006.

In his speech Obama called Wright’s comments “incendiary.” He said Israel is a “stalwart ally” and blamed “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam” for spawning the violence in the Middle East.

Obama presented Wright as someone marred by “the anger and bitterness of those years” of legal segregation in this country. Obama’s explanation belittled not only Wright but other demagogues like him who have built their careers on race-baiting and conspiracy theories. “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation,” Obama said, “the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away.”

In taking up how to solve racial discrimination, Obama hammered away at themes of unity as “Americans.” “We need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems,” he said. “Two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health-care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”

He argued these problems can be traced to failed policies and cultural legacies, not the workings of the capitalist system, which depends on the superexploitation of Black labor for profit.

Referring to affirmative action, Obama said that when white people “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 … resentment builds over time.”

While the liberal press lined up behind Obama after the speech, conservative reaction was divided. Ultrarightist Patrick Buchanan ran a scathing racist review in an article he titled “A Brief for Whitey.” Buchanan called the talk “the same old con, the same old shakedown that black hustlers have been running.”

Such dismissals of the speech prompted rightist Robert N. Going, a militant foe of abortion, to write in The Judge Report blog about racist discrimination he’s witnessed over the years. He described a case he heard as a judge in the 1990s in which a Black woman was charged with disorderly conduct for throwing an ashtray in a diner after the man behind the counter told her, “We don’t serve niggers here.”

In National Review Online, columnist Charles Murray criticized fellow conservatives for their dismissal of Obama’s speech. “I can’t vote for him. He is an honest-to-God lefty,” wrote Murray. “But the other day he talked about race in ways no other major politician has tried to do, with a level of honesty that no other major politician has dared, and with more insight than any other major politician possesses. Not bad.”

Justin Raimondo, a contributor to Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, picked up Murray’s remarks and reposted them on the ultraright website with the postscript, “Amen.”  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home