Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama's speech on racism

Warning: This entry could surprise my friends on both sides of the political aisle.

If you're like me, you heard tons about Obama's speech on racism. I've heard nothing positive about it. I listen mostly to conservative talk radio and no one expects them to say anything good about Obama. I also listen to the big networks and they had nothing positive to say either. Years ago I tried listening to liberal talk radio and I just couldn't stomach it.

In 1992, Dan Quayle made his famous Murphy Brown speech. This was when Al Gore was still inventing the internet, so I depended on the main-stream media to read the real speech. By the time it came out, most political candidates had changed their tune and were supporting Quayle's ideas, if not his speech. What a turn-around!

I learned from that experience to go to the source. So today, I took time to read Obama's speech. You can find it here. To my surprise, I found very little in Obama's words with which I disagree.

Sen. Obama's speech included lots of words about Rev. Wright, but that was no more the topic than was Quayle's speech about a TV character back in 1992 (it was about a poverty of values, including absent fathers - which Obama mentioned also). Rather, Obama was talking for the first half of the speech about racism in America. I thought he did a good job expaining the situation. Yes, he spent time defending his views on Wright, but that's not all the speech is about.

At this point, I should indentify myself as a white American. Born and raised in the south and proud of it. I have looked back for about 4 generations and all of these ancestors were raised in the south. I don't know if any ever owned slaves, but I know some fought in the civil war (and not for the north). I do know that some of my relatives have harbored racist feelings and for that I am not proud. I'll also apologize to anyone offended by the term "black". I'll use that in this entry: it's what Obama used in his speech and it's shorter than "African American". I should also point out that I will assume that his speech matches the way Obama feels. I have no doubt that he has speech writers who wrote good portions of the speech, but he gets all the credit and all the blame.

Obama's speech was very well written and shows a good bit of intelligence. Four years ago, I realized that this man was going to be somebody. Starting with a quotation from the Constitution and tracing slavery through the halls of the Philadelphia convention, Obama spoke without malice about the process and the realization that "words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage."

Senator Obama gets it. Neither then, nor now, can "words on parchment" solve the problem. He also gets it that racism cuts both ways. He talks about "white racism" and "divisive comments" by Wright.

Then he transitions his speech. "Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze"
In other words, both black and white racism distract us from the real problems. I agree 100%. He says that "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." In all, I think he spoke more about reverse racism (anti-white) than he did about racism (anti-black). I haven't counted words and think that that too would "block the path to understanding."

What are the real problems? Obama sites these items: 1) Big Business, 2) Washington politics and 3) economic policies that favor the few over the many.

He identifies some specific actions for blacks: 1) embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past, 2) continuing to insist on justice and 3) binding our particular grievances to the larger aspirations of all Americans. This is also where he talks about absent fathers (where's Quayle when you need him?).

He identifies some specific actions for whites: acknowledge that racism is real with both words and deeds (investing in schools and communities, enforcing civil rights laws, providing "ladders of opportunities).

Then he transitions again by asking us not to focus on racism. Instead he wants us to focus on education, on health care, jobs (and offshoring) and bringing the troops home "from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged".

He also mentioned that Wright sees "the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily (with) ... allies like Israel, instead of (starting with ) radical Islam."

So, that's a condensation of Obama's speech, I'll explore my comments on it in a couple of days. I'd be interested in your comments. I'd be especially interested in any comments on the comparisons between Obama and Quayle.


dpotts said...

Give Al Gore a break. He never claimed to have invented the Internet. When asked what accomplishment he was the most proud of from his Senate career Gore said it was sponsoring (or writing or introducing, something along those lines) the bill that funded the research into what eventually became the Internet, which he did. The whole thing was blown out of proportion.

While I think most of my comments will wait for you're comments (which I'm reading after this), I have to say I'm intrigued by the "Murphy Brown" speech comparison. After doing some research (back in '92 I was in Kindergarten, so I don't have a lot of first hand memories about the election) the speeches seem to be polar opposites. While Obama's seemed to do a good job of getting to the point, while Quayle's speech completely overshadowed his point (which, at it's core, I agree with) with an idiotic reference to a TV show.

Still, I get the point you were making about going to the primary source and strongly agree with you.

Randy Barnett said...

Ok, I violated my own rule with the Gore/internet comment: I didn't go find the source to see what he really said (but it is funny).

Quayle's speech was something like 40 minutes. The Murphy Brown comment was something like 4 seconds. Murphy Brown was one of the most popular shows and TV. His point was it didn't help family values to have a TV show promoting out of marriage children. Incidentally, the actress who played Murphy Brown didn't practice what she preached, she waited until she was married. After they heard the details of the speech, nearly every presidential candidate agreed with Quayle (Ross Perot was one of the slowest).

If you can find the speech and compare it to Obama's, I'd be interested. Obama's covered a lot more territory, Quayle's was more targeted. Remember that Quayle was a sitting Vice President, he had more speaking time.

dpotts said...

I could only find excerpts of Quayle's speech, but my claim is just that Obama seems to have gotten to his point directly while Quayle seemed to overshadow his point by alienating some people. After Obama's speech the focus was on the issue of race, not a sitcom.

As I said, I actually agree with Quayle's core point about the importance of marriage, but I tend to prefer imperfect sitcom characters. I hate it when people think that every show on television needs to have some sort of moral point.

Randy Barnett said...

Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech was delivered on May 19, 1992 to the Commonwealth Club of California. You can find it at

I pulled it into Word and found it has 2706 words. The paragraph that talks about Murphy Brown contains 41 words. That's under 2% and it gave a frame of reference that everyone understood.

What happened to Quayle has happened to Obama, the media has given sound bytes and the public ate them. Today, we have an option that didn't exist then, we have the internet to find out what they really said.

Oh, Quayle wasn't the first politician to talk about family values, Jimmy Carter encouraged marriage and told people to stop "shacking up" (I think it was one of his State of the Union speeches, couldn't find it).

Bottom line, I LIKE the part of Obama's speech on race. I think he's accurate in all of it.

dpotts said...

I get your point and agree with it, I'm just trying to distance Obama's speech from the controversial parts of the "Murphy Brown" speech's legacy.

Randy Barnett said...

I was hoping you would agree with this post and would recognize the similarity. There are several positive points and by closing the distance, I've actually given Obama a lot of credit.

1) The so-called "Murphy Brown" speech was about family values, when you boil down Obama's speech, it too was about family values (at least the first part).

2) Obama's speech was MUCH deeper than the sound bites, as was Quayle's.

3) Both men are/were well-learned.

I actually think Obama's the better speaker.

dpotts said...

Okay, I get it now. I think the problem is that I never really paid much attention to what soundbites were being used from Obama's speech. At that time I was still so burnt-out on politics from our primary to follow all the news.