Race matters: Obama’s speech in Philadephia


MSNBC provides this transcript of Obama’s speech today. As you likely know he is under fire for comments his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, made in sermons over the years. This speech is quite masterful as it rejects Wright’s characterizations but recognizes the reality that is behind his angry judgments about American politics, racism, injustice, and place in the world. He shows the parallel with white anger for being held accountable for the sins of our early fathers. In both cases, impolite speech is understandable but not helpful. He says,

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze

What should we do? He tells us to take responsibility for our lives, reject victim mentalities, insisting on justice for all, acknowledging the legacy of discrimination, rejecting cynicism, working together as opposed to for our own good alone. 

He’s right.  When we see hyperbole, we must acknowledge the truth at the center. Fact: we have been arrogant snobs in dealings with other countries. It shouldn’t surprise us that if we kick the dog, the dog bites back. Fact: The country wants equality as long as it doesn’t cost anything. We keep complaining, but until we all agree that my neighbor’s struggle is my own, we won’t see much change. 

He’s wrong.  Trying harder and being truthful about racial reconciliation progress is good, but it is not enough. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the breaking of our pride, the demand that our individual identities take precedence over that of God’s humble servants, we’re not likely to make much more progress. Legislation helps curb our sin, but it does not stop the seed of racialization. Only the Cross does that. Isaiah’s prophecy is that God is going to discipline his people so that cannot put their trust in man–whether he is bad (e.g., Ahaz) or good (Hezekiah). He lays us bare then He brings us into Zion so that we know that it is His power and holiness that makes us his people.

One final note from his speech. See how he explains why he doesn’t reject a friend who has said stupid things. In my mind this is how we ought to talk about each other instead of throwing them under the bus in order to get what we want:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

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10 Comments

Filed under anger, church and culture, Civil Rights, Cultural Anthropology, Great Quotes, news, News and politics, Race, Racial Reconciliation

10 responses to “Race matters: Obama’s speech in Philadephia

  1. I’m sorry, Phil, I just can’t reconcile Obama’s statements. I don’t understand how can you sit under a guy for 20 years and not know what he’s saying? Especially when the church is giving special awards to Louis Farrakhan. I’m all for a revolutionary speech and disagreement, but even this has me a bit unnerved.

  2. judi lemay-lusk

    i think i agree with atypicalgirl, phil. wright didn’t say ‘stupid’ things, he said hostile things. maybe i’m being naive because i do not understand the black community, but to sit for 20 years under a man who says such hateful things? to sit by while they give an award to farrakhan??? it’s not like wright, say, views creation as 7 24-hour days and obama disagreed; he could stay and deal with that. this is something totally different.

    i’m not convinced that such political rhetoric should be espoused from the pulpit in the first place. but i am convinced that i do have more gaping holes that need to be filled in by obama. sitting under wright does not win him any points in my book.

  3. jangle2

    Hi Phil ! I did not get to listen to the entire speech and thank you for having it available. I am in agreement with judi and atypicalgirl in that there is no excuse for sitting under a man that has a position of authority for so many years and NOT being offended or leaving. I was born and raised in south of here and had many friends that were black, or African -American, I get confused as to what is politically correct anymore……….and as Obama’s grandmother said, I too sometimes get a bit unnerved around a man at times, but it isn’t directly because of his color, it is more because I may be in a vulnerable place at the time. Sitting in a church under one’s own free will should never be a vulnerable time, so the comparison lacks validity to me. His speech won no points on my scorecard today.

  4. All,

    Sometimes as an African American Christian would like political rhetoric out of the pulpit. But I realize this is not really a realistic nor a wise decision for many different reasons. I would address a significant reason is because biblical preaching is largely political. The Old Testament prophets were charged to preach against unrighteousness and injustice that were done by ancient rulers within and without of Israel. The Lord Jesus preached against the hypocrisy of the ruling class within Jerusalem.

    The African American Church as historically been the citadel of fight for social justice. The Rev. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were thrown of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1792. This injustice in the so-called house of God birthed the Black Church. In this social institution, politics and faith intertwined. The Church was the voice of freedom and justice and has been up to the Civil Rights era and beyond.

    Jeremiah Wright comes from a stock of black preachers forged in the slave era and in the black liberation movement of the 1960’s. The hyperbolic rhetoric (please note that was taken out of the context of a larger sermon) must be understood in the context of his generation and his perspective. His words are angry and hateful, yes. But realize his hatred is not toward white people nor America the people. His hatred is for the system that forged the institutionalized oppression of millions of people. Like Rev. Joseph Lowery comments on tonight’s Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, though his language is different than other black preachers, the common thread of angst and resentment runs deep in his generation of black preacher/activists who fought in the Civil Rights Movement. The Bible admonishes us to put off anger, it doesn’t allow people to take away that anger from people who have be historically oppressed within their own country, something that the majority culture does not have the privilege of understanding.

    Please be informed I am not a fan of some of Dr. Wright’s theological perspectives. I write this to you to please consider his comments in the context of his sermon (for the large part we do not have access to) and the historical context of what he sees as contemporary wrong with the current state of affairs whether you agree with his statements or not.

    In addition, Obama’s speech was great.

  5. Scott Knapp, MS

    As a kid in the late 70’s, I had a few silk disco shirts…disco was “in” and chicks dug ‘em! When the 80’s came along, hard rock displaced disco, all of us got carried away by the “disco sucks” movement, and into the trash went all my silk disco shirts! Besides…chicks didn’t dig disco shirts anymore…. Rev. Wright is Obama’s “silk disco shirt”. ‘Nuff said.

  6. Do we fault Obama for sitting under someone who says, from time to time, angry and hostile things? I don’t. Here’s why.
    1. We don’t know his private response.
    2. We do know that many of us have tolerated improper remarks from loved ones because we separate what we know of them from what doesn’t fit. Happens all the time! Should we? No. But we do.
    3. Leaving the Black church–even for another one–is more like divorce than it would be for white folk leaving one generic church for another
    4. Within the Black church, there has been a long tradition of speaking out against the evil of injustice. One could argue that white folks sitting in churches that ignored discrimination (gender or race) are JUST as wrong and culpable as Obama. Note that Wright was speaking against the system and against systemic racism.

    Now, I’ll admit I don’t get the Farrakhan award and I would have a hard time being part of a church that does anything favorable toward that man. There should have been outrage. But, just as we white folk have not always spoken against Christian leaders who do stupid stuff, we must be wary of going after those who do the same passive matter.

    I think another issue that surfaces here is the outrage against Black pride. Seems to unnerve folk and they want to equate it with white pride (aka white supremacy). I think that is a bad equation due to the differences in majority/minority status.

  7. Jangle2,

    I guess I’d be careful about how I judge vulnerability. People can be vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. I know folks who stay in the Catholic church despite their strong differences because of family or community ties.

    I think a good exercise is to consider whether race does or does not play a part (not all) in feelings of vulnerability. If someone looks like you (race, culture, socio-economic status, etc.) do you feel more comfortable passing them on the street than say another. I’ll admit that there have been times that I allowed stereotypes of Black males to induce fear that was unwarranted. The fact is, we all stereotype and sometimes using race.

  8. Hey, Phil, can you delete that ping back from my blog to yours? :)

    Grrr…I’m trying to be open-minded about this…I really am. But it just goes back to the idea that I can’t stomach Jeremiah Wright’s statements and don’t get Obama being at that church. I’m trying not to be ignorant. Wright’s statements just stick in my gut and I can’t get over it. It was the “white America, the U.S. of KKK A” that really threw it over the edge for me.

    I get that black people are angry, but yelling about the oppression of white America just seems to upset white America…or so it seems. Recent polls at several different news orgs show that people are less supportive of Obama even though some still have Obama and Hillary neck-in-neck.

    No matter what–I don’t think Obama’s speech was enough to sway the opinions of a lot of people. Even my extremely liberal pals are unsettled…and they’re not all white either.

  9. Atypicalgirl,

    For the record, I can’t stomach Wright’s comments either. But I do understand that generations of oppression bleed out. White folk, like myself, understand individual oppression but seem less understanding of the impact and anger that comes from generations of oppression of an entire people group. Nor do many get that white privilege is real. Does the anger help? No. And to Obama’s credit, he agrees and challenges both sides.

    One other thing that may be important here. I’ll bet that if you listen to most of Wright’s sermons is that he is nearly as acid tongued about Black culture. That is common. Black preachers are prophets and like Isaiah, nobody escapes their criticism. They are equal opportunity accusers. While I’m not sure that is the best way to get your congregation’s attention, it is culturally acceptable.

    I would encourage readers to read “Reconciliation Blues” (he’s on my blog list to the right) or Spencer Perkins “More than Equals” to get an evangelical view of race relations.

  10. Scott Knapp, MS

    I think when social change became a more worthy cause that helping people hear the gospel at any cost, a large element of the Christian church got sidetracked. Here’s a question to consider, and I think it’s litmus test for where your values lie: imagine that there was a closed off country where the people had never heard the Gospel. You believe God is prompting you to find a way in, to share the good news, and you discover that the only way enter that country for someone of your race…is to voluntarily offer yourself to become slave labor in that country! If you become a slave to the people in that country, your choice is irrevocable…you can’t turn back…the choice to enter that country requires your tremendous sacrifice. You also have no guarantee that you’ll be able to get the Gospel message out…but it’s your only chance. Would you take it? Paul did…Jesus did…would you? My personal challenge to my black Christian brothers and sisters is to become open to a challenge to review the role of the church…it’s the effort to use the church to forward a social agenda, I think the primary value of doing whatever it takes to reach anyone and everyone with the good news of Jesus has been trampled underfoot. If I am ever posed with the challenge to take a servant’s role for the sake of taking good news to those whom I serve, I want the guts to go for it!

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