Aghast Responses to Obama’s Speech Betray Cynicism, Revisionism

I find the outrage brewing in some right-wing blogs over Barack Obama’s frank but balanced observations about the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism in American history, disturbing, but nonetheless psychologically illuminating.

Much is being made of his temerity in speaking of America’s “original sin” in race relations. The speech (text and video in full here), begins as follows:

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots, who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part—through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

I don’t think this controversy is primarily fueled by sincere outrage over the substance of the speech. No doubt some absolutely loath the sentiment; but given the undeniably troubled, and often baldly hypocritical, relations between whites and blacks over the course of this nation’s history, I find it hard to believe that conservative intellectuals and those leading the charge against him are honestly outraged at this idea being expressed by an African American. In my view, this is much more about the American Right marginalizing a liberal foe whose unusual profile inures him to their tried and true attack strategies and whose continued presence in the public eye threatens to undermine a complex of myths and double standards about the Left that give Republicans a decided edge in populist debates. Understandably, stalwarts on the Right are apprehensive at the prospect of a liberal who threatens to change the rules of the political game—ones that in important respects work in their favor—so any rhetorical misstep is going to be seized on with a vengeance. Hence this brewing storm.

I find three aspects of this still nascent controversy disturbing:

  • The deep historical amnesia (if not outright revisionism) on display about one of the most crucial moral and political issues of our collective history. I simply cannot grasp how an informed person could consider these observations beyond the pale given how recently African Americans were sitting in the back of buses and drinking from “colored” water fountains in significant swaths of America. For all the Founding Fathers’ noble ideals about the equality of men, it took nearly two centuries for America to fully shake off institutionalized racism. African Americans have grounds for some ambivalence about America’s past.
  • The unmitigated gall of pundits—especially those affiliated with segments of the American body politic that that only a generation ago fought the Civil Rights Movement tooth and nail, jurisdiction by jurisdiction—dictating to a black man how he may interpret his nation’s troubled racial past (and present, judging by incarceration rates). The chutzpah at work here is simply off the charts.
  • The dismaying spectacle of people of faith, otherwise known for decrying the phenomenon of nihilism and moral relativism in American society, attempting to short circuit so important and long overdue a conversation about a manifest evil of the not so distant past.
  • There is also an intense irony in such protests arising from quarters that constantly decry the phenomenon of “political correctness.” I can think of few scenarios more “politically correct” and inimitable to the spirit of open debate than a backlash against an African-American leader for talking honestly about the racism of the past.

    The sad thing is that Obama must suffer foolish criticism lightly. He should be able to suggest that those agitating against him learn some history and take a long walk off a short pier, but of course he can’t. Polls have shown that a significant and growing segment of America is convinced that racism is largely a thing of the past and images of past racial injustice are more the result of “America-hating” leftists’ imaginations than the historical record. Others, I think, feel insecure in an increasingly diverse society and tragically perceive discussion of this bleak aspect of America’s past, true though it may be, as a zero-sum game at their expense. Whatever the motivation, the result is the same: The intellectual tyranny of the majority, and on a matter the majority is not well equipped to judge.

    In that, this tempest in a teacup reminds me of some Shari’a controversies in contemporary Islamic societies. Not all reform initiatives are equally well thought out or worthy of support, but the confluence of widespread ignorance today concerning the nature Islamic law, cynical campaigns by establishment politicians to resist change, and widespread anxieties about the interference by outsiders can put reformers on the defensive and force them to back away from facts to avoid political oblivion. The limits of political debate in Islamic societies are equally dependent on the ebb and flow of “what the market will bear.”