Having been shocked by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has said things that would be unthinkable even (or especially) if they were true, we're now well on the road to recovery, thanks to Obama's speech on racism, wherein he distances himself from Wright's "profoundly distorted view of this country," while espousing the healing doctrines of American exceptionalism and business as usual in the Middle East.
I hasten to add that I'm not being completely serious here. While there were a few grating notes in Obama's speech, it was a very impressive performance, on the whole - almost beautiful, in spots.
And needless to say, it brought out the best in American journalism. For instance, it prompted MSNBC to ask viewers this thoughtful question, and to offer them exactly two possible responses to it:
Do you think the country is ready for a black president?I don't recall being asked in previous years whether the country was "ready" for yet another white president, or yet another male one for that matter. Nor do I recall Bush being elected for his ability to "bridge the racial divide."
Yes. Obama proved he is ready to lead and bridge the racial divide.
No. The underlying racial issues in this country have yet to be resolved.
Besides, these answers make no sense when taken together: We can choose Obama to resolve our racial issues, or we can reject him specifically because our racial issues "have yet to be resolved." Choose wisely!
Unlike MSNBC, Obama clearly understands that "the country" is not some star chamber that sits in judgment of minority aspirations, but actually comprises the very minorities who are marginalized in its name and for its sake (which is why it's so frustrating that he pays so much lip service to the dubious abstraction of "unity").
With that in mind, here's someone who's a good represenatative of "the country" in MSNBC's sense: David C. Richardson, who owns a refrigeration supply store in Providence, RI, recently demanded to see two customers' Social Security cards because they'd dared to speak Spanish in his store.
When Genao told Richardson “he did not have the right to ask all those questions,” Richardson pulled out a membership card for Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, a group that seeks curbs on illegal immigration.I hardly have to mention that these men were, in fact, legal citizens. Or to point out that Richardson probably wouldn't have been quite so upset if two white people had been speaking German in his store.
Then, he lifted the phone receiver and threatened to call immigration authorities, Genao said.
Believe it or not, Richardson still doesn't seem to understand that he made a mistake:
Said Richardson, “I have no problem as a citizen of the United States of America to try and pursue people who are breaking laws. I was just trying to make [them] understand that people who come into this country who are illegal shouldn’t be here. I am very passionate about that....I’m trying to wake America up. I’m trying to wake him [Genao’s friend] up, and let him be aware that people who are breaking the law shouldn’t be breaking the law.”Of course, they weren't breaking the law. But you get the point.
Actually, if anyone was breaking the law, it was Richardson himself, given that Rhode Island state law says that "no person shall require that a consumer of goods or services disclose a Social Security number incident to the sale of consumer goods or services.” Perhaps some Spanish-speaking citizens will be inspired to visit his shop and place him under citizens' arrest; the Rev. Wright might even be tempted to denounce him from the pulpit.
Is Mr. Richardson ready for a black president? Beats me. Obama reminds us that people like Richardson are victims too, and that racial anger is sometimes fueled by economic stress. All of which is certainly true. But what he overlooks is that when white victimhood lashes out, it tends to do so in the confidence that it's not only backed up by, but representative of, the highest ideals of this country and the stark power of its law. Which is usually not how people on the receiving end of these outbursts experience things, to say the least, whether those people are bilingual customers at a hardware store, or the citizens of whatever unlucky country threatens our peace of mind this week.
In my view, this brings us back inescapably to Obama's vow to combat "the hateful ideologies of radical Islam" (and to defend our staunch ally Israel, and so forth), the very possibility of which requires perpetuating the victimization and racial paranoia and economic stress that Obama decries...to say nothing of the monolithic, undeconstructible faith in our essential "goodness and greatness" that he offers as an antidote to Wright's dour fixation on the people we've killed and tortured despite our generally good intentions.
Let's get over what we've done, so we can do it again, in pursuit of a world that will redeem the bones on which it was built.
However lurid his words may've been, Rev. Wright at least reminds us how power achieves what it calls progress, and at whose expense. My worry is not that Obama will be too influenced by this view of America, but that it won't influence him enough.