Widely viewed on YouTube and much discussed across the political media, Barack Obama’s mid-March speech about the need for a national discussion of race indeed emanated from a historic place.
Philadelphia, Obama reminded us, was where our Constitution was signed, and that sacred document originally granted extra power to slaveholders and no rights to slaves.
But the place somewhat ironically known as the “City of Brotherly Love” also holds more recent significance in terms of the nation’s race relations. In the oh-so fateful year of 1968, Sun Ra moved to town with his Arkestra; later asked to explain why, he replied, “To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on Earth, and that was Philadelphia, which was death’s headquarters.” During that same year, the legendary racial antagonist Frank Rizzo became the city’s police commissioner; in the 1970s, Rizzo ruled Philly as an iron-fist mayor. The next few decades saw the MOVE bombing and the Mumia controversy. It may no longer be the “worst spot on earth,” but Philadelphia still isn’t exactly a racially integrated paradise.
Obama, of course, didn’t come to town in order to discuss issues that pertained only to North or West Philly, or to the South Side of Chicago. The speech he gave in Center-City Philadelphia was aimed at multi-hued audiences in cities, suburbs, and rural areas across the land. His immediate concern was to put out the fires surrounding his now-former minister Jeremiah Wright’s speeches, blazes that Obama’s opponents’ campaigns both sought to stoke. The Illinois senator’s larger goal was to place a discussion of racial inequality onto the national agenda. Along the way, Obama provided a quite large audience with a far more accurate view of U.S. history than the one usually found in our public discussion.
Rather than begin with the opening claim of the Declaration of Independence—i.e., that “all men are created equal”—Obama led off his speech by citing the beginning of the first line of the Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” In both cases, slavery contradicted the basic premises of the emerging nation’s founding documents. Rather than pave the way for its elimination, the Founding Fathers ensured the system’s perpetuation, allowing slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a citizen in order to increase the power of southern states. Blacks did not experience full legal equality under the law until nearly two centuries later. And what brought it about, according to Obama? Not visionary politicians, but instead “protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience.” In such a view, power flows from the bottom-up, not from the top-down, making Obama sound far more like Howard Zinn or Eric Foner than the History Channel.
Rather than fully condemn Reverend Wright, Obama sought to place the minister’s fiery perspective in context. Trinity United Church of Christ is located on the South Side of Chicago, where Obama lives. As the sociologist Mary Patillo showed in her recent book Black on the Block, Chicago’s south side has many neighborhoods in which the black poor and the black middle and upper classes coexist. (Unlike in New York and many other cities, Chicago’s black middle class is also growing in terms of its economic and political strength—a somewhat overlooked aspect of Obama’s rise.) Trinity, Obama explained, thus “embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger.” Since Reverend Wright “contains within him the contradictions” that make up such a congregation, Obama poignantly stated, “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” A rather unusual statement for a politician reckoning with a controversial ally, to be sure.
To explain the roots of the anger shared by Reverend Wright and many in his flock, Obama resumed his narrative of American history. That past injustices influence the present conditions of any group should be accepted as a given—but in our future-oriented culture, Americans have long suffered from a mix of historical amnesia and denial, especially regarding black history. Thus, Obama’s observation that “so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow”—should go without saying, but then again, not enough Americans have read the works of John Hope Franklin or his many disciples. Instead our popular mythology is one of racial progress. The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown decision that desegregated schools plays a central role in that story, but as Obama said, more than half-century later “we still haven’t fixed” our “inferior schools.”
The persistence of legalized discrimination also contradicts the popular narrative of progress. Obama here mentioned a wide range of discriminatory practices that, until his speech, were mostly discussed only in the scholarly world. These included various restrictions on property ownership by blacks; the Federal Housing Administration’s pattern of giving preferential home loans to whites as opposed to blacks, which largely created the “Chocolate City-Vanilla Suburbs” phenomenon of the ’50s and ’60s; and entrenched patterns of racial exclusion by various unions and police and fire departments across the country. In recent years many of these problems have been addressed, albeit imperfectly. But, as the senator explained, such barriers “meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.” From his podium/pulpit at Philadelphia, Obama served up a deeply insightful critique of the roots of contemporary black inequality.
A lack of historical understanding of these issues, he further explained, has helped fuel the rise of the New Right. From Goldwater through Reagan to the present, the Republicans stoked the racial fears of whites from the working-class and suburban middle-class alike. As Obama explained, since “most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” race-baiting pols have successfully played on resentments over issues like affirmative action. Obama himself is part of the generation of blacks who benefited from such programs, but those from both Wright’s era and the black underclass reaped few rewards. While it is essential to understand their resentments, “anger,” Obama said, keeps blacks “from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” Among other effects, expanded interracial alliances would sink the New Right.
Moving forward, Obama maintains, will require a change in outlook. The problem with those in the Reverend Wright camp is that they see our society as “static” and “still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” Meanwhile, Reagan Democrats and others in the white community must acknowledge that “the legacy of discrimination…[is] real and must be addressed.” The choice we now face, the candidate says, is between the continuation of race-baiting politics, which those seeking to keep the Wright controversy alive are putting forth, and multiracial unity. Obama’s own personal story and campaign are obviously important—but to use one of his favorite words, “imperfect”—steps in the latter direction. So, too, is an accurate account of how the past has shaped the present. The future is not yet lived, much less written, but no matter what happens during the rest of this year’s election, Obama has contributed immeasurably toward a more honest analysis of an experiment that began in Philadelphia.