Dynamist Blog

The Speech

Barack Obama's speech on race in America was remarkable: simultaneously honest and diplomatic, personal and historical. It was empathetic and sought to inspire empathy in its audience, not for Obama but for Other Americans. It also gave evidence, for the first time since Ronald Reagan, of a presidential candidate with an active mind and eloquent voice engaged with big questions. In the mountain of commentary that followed, I found Robert George's reaction most similar to my own. To Robert's comments on the speech's bravery, I'll add that it is most unusual to hear a Democratic politician recall that one of the great barriers to black advancement during Jim Crow was that "blacks were excluded from unions." (What's next, a denunciation of Woodrow Wilson?)

The speech was not just a meditation on race, however. It was also a campaign speech by a candidate with particular policy views, views that place him well to the left of the political spectrum. With lines like "this time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit," the speech offered no place in its vision of racial concord for Americans who support open markets, economic dynamism, and limited government. In a serious meditation on race, as opposed to a campaign speech, that's a problem. (Besides to "ship it overseas" is, in fact, just another way of letting "someone who doesn't look like you...take your job." Obama's public empathy doesn't extend to Chinese or Indians. Megan McArdle is very good on this.)

Finally, on a historical note, the speech made me think of another famous oration, Frederick Douglass's 1852 address What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? And it made me wish that Edith Efron had lived to hear and discuss it.

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