Even as Barack Obamas speech on race Tuesday morning was being widely hailed for its candor on a subject about which Americansand, it must be said, especially liberal Americansare notoriously less than candid, it strived to set, and limit, the terms of this long overdue conversation.
Yes, Obama acknowledged, there is vast miscommunication between the races, a constant misreading of signals and intent. Things get said on both sides that, while regrettable, arent meant precisely as they may sound to ears of a different color. Obama readily admitted that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, as a man who came of age in the harsh and unforgiving era of segregation, says things deeply offensive to anyone eager for racial healing and everyone who appreciates the blessings of America; and he went onin perhaps the most heralded lines of the speechto note that his white grandmother, a woman who loved and nurtured him, was also a product of that era, and similarly given to reflexive stereotyping and otherwise beset by racial insensitivity. He also broached the subject of racial preferences and, in a way few liberals have, acknowledged the legitimate resentment and frustration of white parents who see minority children offered educational opportunities denied their own children even if they get better grades.
Never mind that Obama gave the speech only because he faced a crisis that threatened to derail his campaign; or that the liberal medias rapturous response to itmr. obamas profile in courage, ran the title of the New York Timess editorialall but guarantees that he will achieve his political goal of quieting full-throated discussion of his relationship with Wright. (It is a good bet that in the coming weeks and months, we wont see much more of Wrights wild-eyed sermons anywhere on TV but FOX, and that many mainstreamers will call them old news or even characterize their continued airing as racist.)
Still, it is useful that Obama said the things he did. Yet the speech was also notable for what he failed to say. On affirmative action, for example, that heartfelt expression of sympathy to white parents and children was as far as hed go. He remains an adamant and unapologetic supporter of racial preferences. And in a wholly uncalled-for swipe at conservative broadcasters and others who supposedly play the race card when they discuss the subject, he conveyed the sense that he regards at least some on the other side as driven by racism rather than principle. This is merely a fresh version of name calling, a tactic long used by the Left to silence those who question liberal dogma.
Further, he broached not at all a number of subjects that conservatives regard as key to any discussion of the racial divide in contemporary America: the epidemic of children born out of wedlock in the African-American community; children, especially boys, being raised without fathers; blacks notable lack of interest in education; the horrific values purveyed by so much of hip-hop culture. When Bill Cosby, a true exemplar of both audacity and hope, raised these issues, he earned the contempt of a large segment of the black intelligentsia. What we got from Obama was the usual stuff about the governments not doing enough for inner-city blacks. For all the talk of the speechs having enabled a new and more meaningful conversation, it in fact stressed the familiar and comforting liberal tropes of white oppression and black victimhood.
The fact is, Cosby is only one of those who have been trying to generate a more meaningful conversation on race in America. Another is Ward Connerly, who has championed successful anti-preference measures in three states since 1996 and aims to do so again on the ballots of five states this November, thereby effectively nationalizing the issue. No one has discussed race in America more honestly in recent years than Connerly, a man who, born black in the deep South, suffered at least as much discrimination in his youth as his contemporary, Jeremiah Wrightbut came of age with the understanding that the way to get past hatred in this country is to look beyond skin color, not obsess about it. Connerly is not blindhe understands that measures must be taken to bring those in the inner cities into the American mainstreambut he also understands that the way to go about it is not to reinforce the profoundly undermining idea that theyre incapable of succeeding on their own merits, and so must be perpetually victims, to be condescended to.
We might well be seeing a great deal of Connerly on the tube this fall, perhaps in counterpoint to Barack Obama. Then, at long lastif were luckythe no-holds-barred conversation we need to have might actually occur.
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal. A journalist and novelist, he is the author of How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace) and The Girl Watchers Club. He will be teaching this summer at the Brouzils Seminars in France (brouzils.org).