Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 03:54 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 03:54 | SYDNEY

Talking about race


Michael Fullilove


25 March 2008 12:26

I hope to write soon on what Senator Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia last Tuesday (and the fact that he decided to cover this issue in a speech rather than a press conference or a 60 Minutes interview) tells us about speechmaking in American politics. But what about the content of the speech itself?

It was brought on by Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s comments, and it seems to me Obama’s remarks dealt with that issue very deftly. (That’s not to say he has inoculated himself against this particular virus: we will see what the Republican machine makes of Reverend Wright, should Obama capture the Democratic nomination.) But the speech was much larger than one individual. Obama took it upon himself to address the most treacherous topic in American politics: race. No-one with an eye to their political future steps up on race: it’s been intriguing to watch the talking heads on cable TV – people who very rarely find themselves without a strong opinion – duck and weave over the past fortnight when it comes to race.

Obama spoke in a straightforward manner about a very complicated subject. He spoke more honestly than anyone could have expected about the imperfections of American society – the prejudices that unite Reverend Wright and Obama’s white grandmother, two people who might otherwise have nothing in common. And he set out some clear ideas about ‘the path to a more perfect union’ for both whites and blacks. In sum, this was a speech of great intelligence and nuance, and it’s hard to imagine another American politician delivering anything like it.

It has received an extraordinary reception in the broadsheets, and even some conservative commentators (though certainly not all) have written admiringly of parts of it. It is not known, of course, how much of this will seep down to the constituency Obama has not yet conquered: working-class whites. Margaret Carlson writes that Obama should have delivered ‘a clear, sound-bite-ready break from Wright that Reagan Democrats in Pennsylvania could have batted around at the Knights of Columbus hall.’ But that is not Obama’s style – something for which I, at least, am thankful.