I didn’t see it, but I’ve seen enough of Barack Obama at the podium and dais to know that his oration matched the words. And the words he has to say – on race, at least – are the most compelling and honest things any politician has put forth on this topic in the last century, perhaps in our history. As rhetoric, it is very nearly flawless. But it is much more than that.
I don’t believe in many of the political prescriptions he draws in the peroration. I do not stiffen to the clanging, perennial alarums over a health care “crisis” in a system that has operated more or less successfully in the same manner ever since World War II. Nor do I think that it is the role of government bureaucrats to tell businessmen how to make money: Our economy flourishes in a competitive marketplace through innovation, adaptation, and the free movement of labor and capital. We create great value and ever greater efficiencies, freeing up resources for redeployment into new areas of innovation, refreshing the virtuous cycle. We create value through that competition, not by the preferences and favors of the political class. I don’t agree with him about the war in Iraq. Even conceding purely arguendo that it ought not to have been authorized or waged, I cannot believe that bringing the soldiers home precipitously is the right thing to do: There is no “undo” button in national strategy and consequences will follow failure.
But on race – somewhat perversely for a candidate who did not run on race – he is note perfect. This is why Obama’s candidacy has raised spirits and hopes – probably beyond the capacity of one man to to answer. This is why he should be the Democratic Party’s candidate, even if he doesn’t win the election.
There is a cohort of loopy liberals who want to be absolved of their self-imposed burden of race guilt, but let us not dwell too much on them. There are also those on every side of the political argument who acknowledge that the issue of race in our country is our last national frontier, our last mountain to climb, our last stain to erase if we are to become the country of our ideals. The country that we tell ourselves we are. The country that we tell our children that we are.
We – white people – watch “The Wire“, agreeing earnestly with ourselves that it is “the best thing on television.” The show takes us to places – right here in America – that we ourselves dare not go, allows us to mutely witness things we are aware of but which we are not allowed to talk about. Shows us lives we can never see.
We watch in morbid fascination as proxies in the form of working class police of all colors stand in for us in the TV show, knowing that their real life counterparts stand between us and the poverty, fear and desperation of an inner city culture so thoroughgoingly toxic that our political class has all but given up even trying to untangle its pathologies. “We” throw “them” alms, write them off, incarcerate them, blame the victims. Offer them band-aids, condoms, needle exchanges. Shake our heads – isn’t it a shame? In this our Land of Opportunity.
And then when one of the predators forged in the crucible of that culture spills out beyond his limits to kill the pretty young blonde girl who had so much to live for – kills her execution style for the contents of a college student’s debit card, for God’s sake – we say to ourselves in outrage, “What a tragedy!” and ask ourselves, “How could this happen?”
The monster wasn’t made on campus, and he didn’t learn his lethal trade at Chapel Hill. He learned it on his own neighbors in neighboring Durham, or in Baltimore, or in Detroit, or in our Nation’s Capital – places so lethal that their young black citizens were statisically safer in Baghdad wearing body armor in 2006 than they were back home.
The monster learned his contempt for human life on victims that were also American citizens. He learned at the knee of those who’ve ruined lives that were every bit as important to their owners as that student body president’s life was to her. People who would never get the chance to go to UNC, but who had dreams of their own that were just as precious to them as Eve Carson’s was to her. As it was to us.
Where was our outrage then?
This was not a speech that Hillary Clinton could have made. It’s not a speech that John McCain could make. Only Barack Obama could make this speech, and only then when goaded beyond endurance by race baiting preachers and retired congresswomen. Obama will not be able to answer the questions his speech raised. That will take more time and honesty than we have heretofore dedicated to the task.
Perhaps now we can get started.