What Obama Didn’t Say

Most of the discussion of what Obama didn’t say in The Speech concerns, reasonably enough, his relationship with Rev. Wright. But there’s also a good deal more that he didn’t say, and insofar as one believes potential leaders should address important matters of policy in a presidential election, at least one of those other omissions, on affirmative action, may prove to be much more revealing than his eloquence on slavery and the roots of black anger.

First, let’s review what he did say that is either about, or closely related to, the affirmative action debate. The following, I believe, is everything:

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working– and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns — this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

And what does he propose to break our “racial stalemate”? For blacks it means “binding our particular grievances — for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs — to the larger [i.e., similar] aspirations of all Americans.”

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds — by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In short the solution for whites, as for blacks, is to implement the traditional liberal agenda. Fair enough, since he’s a traditional liberal.

Enough has been said, here and elsewhere, about the false parallelism between “white resentments … over welfare and affirmative action” and Wright’s blaming America for 9/11 and inventing AIDS and importing cocaine to murder blacks, and enough has been said about Obama’s implication that white resentment against affirmative action, though real and even understandable, is somehow misdirected, since the “real culprits” causing their pain are corporate greed, etc. Enough has not been said, however, not nearly enough, about what Obama did not say.

He opposes “wish[ing] away” these “white resentments” and acknowledges that they are “real [if misdirected] and must be addressed. Not just with words but with deeds,” but those deeds — all the “investing” in good things — does nothing to redress what whites themselves (and Asians, while we’re at it) regard as the root of their resentment, racial double standards. How are white and Asian Americans supposed “to realize that [black] dreams do not have to come at the expense of [white and Asian] dreams” as long as blacks receive preferential treatment based on their race? Obama doesn’t say.

To see, concretely, what was not said, open Obama’s speech in one window and this excellent article from the Buffalo News today, surveying the racial landscape of Buffalo, in another.

Ready? Here are excerpts from several of those quoted in the Buffalo article. First, a white firefighter:

Eugene Margerum is a living example of this flip side of affirmative action. He is one of 13 white firefighters locked in a legal battle with the city in a reverse discrimination suit.

“We were told we can’t be promoted because we’re non-African-Americans,” Margerum said.

In September, a State Supreme Court justice found that civil service promotions lists had been set aside for racial reasons and granted the firefighters the right to sue the city for financial damages. But U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin blocked the case until he hears another suit brought to federal court by black firefighters.

Margerum is adamant that he has “no ax to grind against the black man,” he said. “I have no animosity toward anyone. But wrong is wrong.”

He believes it’s not only ethically wrong but dangerous to put race above qualifications when hiring and promoting firefighters.

“We transcend all that,” he said. “We have to . . . [Firefighters] are willing to die for their fellow man.”

Margerum said being told he won’t be promoted because of his race was deeply hurtful.

“What’s wrong with being white?” he said. “Why would I feel ashamed of being white?

Next, a black police officer:

Buffalo Police Officer Kenneth Barney, who is African-American, believes that the only way the Police Department was going to become more diverse was through a court order.

When Barney joined the police force in 1982, he was part of Curtin’s ruling that brought hiring quotas for women and minorities into the police and fire departments because of evidence that those groups were being excluded.

“I remember hearing officers saying, ‘This department is going to hell,’ and they were talking about the hiring of black officers,” Barney recalled. “If they didn’t have that ruling, it would have been business as usual with that old boys network.

“It was so political back then that you didn’t have to take a police test, and when you finally did have to take a test, their uncles and aunts were on the civil service commission and helped their cousins and their family members to get in,” he said.

Now, go back to Obama’s speech and re-read it carefully to see what Obama would say, or would have the nation say, to Eugene Margerum and Kenneth Barney.

As far as I can tell, he would tell them both, in effect, that he feels their pain (haven’t we heard that before?), that their pain is real, and that we should “address” it, not just with words but deeds. Yes, but what words? Remember, words are not “just words.” They’re important in their own right (not Wright). Thus I don’t believe it is asking too much of Obama to tell us what words he would use in a meeting with Margerum and Barney.

And deeds? The only deeds I see proposed in Obama’s speech are “investing” in (that’s liberal-speak for raising taxes to pay for) better schools, more opportunities, etc. Now, those proposals may or may not be wise — reasonable people can disagree about that — but it’s hard to see how they would do anything to reduce the resentment that both Margerum and Barney feel.

Obama was widely praised for his fluency with “nuance” and “complexity,” but in this case, as in so many others, nuance and complexity can provide artful dodges of hard issues. A prospective leader who based a large part of his appeal on his ability to handle the race issue better than anyone else should be able to do more than “address” the issue in a nuanced and complex manner.

For what it’s worth, I think the fascination of intellectuals, academics, and media pundits with nuance and complexity largely misses the point. The primary characteristic of the conflict over race in America is not that the problem is nuanced and complex; it is that it is hard. There is no solution that will satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t mean some solutions are not far better than others.

What are Obama’s solutions (other than all that investing)? What will he say to the citizens of Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska, and Oklahoma who will have to decide in November not only who they want to be president but also (assuming his fellow Democrats don’t succeed in keeping the initiatives off their state ballots) whether they want to prohibit their states from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, anyone based on race or ethnicity?

Whatever he says will no doubt be fluent, elegant, nuanced, complex. But what will he say? So far, he hasn’t said.

Say What? (6)

  1. Cobra March 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm | | Reply

    John writes:

    >>>”Enough has been said, here and elsewhere, about the false parallelism between “white resentments … over welfare and affirmative action” and Wright’s blaming America for 9/11 and inventing AIDS and importing cocaine to murder blacks, and enough has been said about Obama’s implication that white resentment against affirmative action, though real and even understandable, is somehow misdirected, since the “real culprits” causing their pain are corporate greed, etc. Enough has not been said, however, not nearly enough, about what Obama did not say.”

    Again, and Again and AGAIN, I hear conservatives try to cast Jeremiah Wright as the ORIGINATOR of issues. What I discover upon further investigation, is that YOU and those rabid, attack dogs in the right winged media and blogosphere, refuse to actually look at what Reverend Wright said, and the context instead of the demonization that is occuring. Let’s see how far your intellectual courage and honesty extends, John.

    The 9/11 Issue:




    >>>”“I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday did anybody else see or hear him? He was on FOX News, this is a white man, and he was upsetting the FOX News commentators to no end, he pointed out, a white man, an ambassador, he pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he was silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true, he said Americas chickens, are coming home to roost.”

    “We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the Apache, Arikara, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism.

    “We took Africans away from their country to build our way of ease and kept them enslaved and living in fear. Terrorism.

    “We bombed Grenada and killed innocent civilians, babies, non-military personnel.

    “We bombed the black civilian community of Panama with stealth bombers and killed unarmed teenage and toddlers, pregnant mothers and hard working fathers.

    “We bombed Qaddafi’s home, and killed his child. Blessed are they who bash your children’s head against the rock.

    “We bombed Iraq. We killed unarmed civilians trying to make a living. We bombed a plant in Sudan to pay back for the attack on our embassy, killed hundreds of hard working people, mothers and fathers who left home to go that day not knowing that they’d never get back home.

    “We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.

    “Kids playing in the playground. Mothers picking up children after school. Civilians, not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day.

    “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff that we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

    “Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador said that y’all, not a black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don’t have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that.”


    You see, John…in a country like Bushamerica 2008, where “benign incuriosity” and anti-intellectualism rules, there’s no such a thing as context. Where the attention span shrinks every passing day Bushamericans can only seem to handle 5 second sound-bites and “gotcha” moments.

    On the AIDS issue, there are legitimate concerns in the black community, given the ABOMINABLE HISTORY OF AMERICA in regards to the medical experimentation upon and health care treatment of African-Americans.

    Don’t tell me YOU, John Rosenberg, a man who seems well-versed on every civil rights argument of this century didn’t KNOW about this history?

    It was only within the LAST TWO YEARS that some scientist CLAIM to know the origin of the AIDS virus:

    >>>”Twenty-five years after the first AIDS cases emerged, scientists have confirmed that the HIV virus plaguing humans really did originate in wild chimpanzees, in a corner of Cameroon.

    Solving the mystery of HIV’s ancestry was dirty work. Scientists employed trackers to plunge through dense jungle and collect the fresh feces of wild apes — more than 1,300 samples in all.

    Before that, it took seven years of research just to develop the testing methods to genetically trace the primate version of the virus in living wild chimps without hurting the endangered species…”

    …”Until now, “no one was able to look. No one had the tools,” said Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She led the team of international researchers that reported the success in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

    “We’re 25 years into this pandemic,” Hahn said. “We don’t have a cure. We don’t have a vaccine. But we know where it came from. At least we can make a check mark on one of those.”


    I guess if you, John Rosenberg, claim to be an authority on the origin of AIDS enough to rebuke Rev. Wrights claims, you’d be happy to hear what our US GOVERNMENT has to say on this subject, and the origin of the “US bio-weapon” theory…

    >>>”When the AIDS disease was first recognized in the early 1980s, its origins were a mystery. A deadly new disease had suddenly appeared, with no obvious explanation of what had caused it. In such a situation, false rumors and misinformation naturally arose, and Soviet disinformation specialists exploited this situation as well as the musings of conspiracy theorists to help shape their brief but highly effective disinformation campaign on this issue.

    The Beginning of Misinformation and Disinformation

    In March 1992, then-Russian intelligence chief and later Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov admitted that the disinformation service of the Soviet KGB had concocted the false story that the AIDS virus had been created in a US military laboratory as a biological weapon. The Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported on March 19, 1992:

    “[Primakov] mentioned the well known articles printed a few years ago in our central newspapers about AIDS supposedly originating from secret Pentagon laboratories. According to Yevgeni Primakov, the articles exposing US scientists’ ‘crafty’ plots were fabricated in KGB offices.”

    The Soviets eventually abandoned the AIDS disinformation campaign under pressure from the U.S. government in August 1987.”


    This is of course NOT to say that I, unlike most of my conservative friends here, take the word of the US Government as sacrosanct and inerrant, but even YOU have to admit that the origin of this conspiracy theory didn’t come from Jeremiah Wright, and the US Government has a LOT of work to do to convince the minority population of their unwavering altruism.

    And if you think this is just a “black thing”, what is your opinion of this episode?

    >>>”There were intradermal injections of live human cancer cells into 22 chronically ill, debilitated non-cancer patients in 1963 without their consent in the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital case, to learn if foreign cancer cells would live longer in debilitated non-cancer patients than in patients debilitated by cancer. Lump at injection site disappeared approximately seven weeks after injection. Research funded by U.S.P.H.S. and American Cancer Society.

    The subjects were not told that the injection contained cancer cells, because the physicians “did not wish to stir up any unnecessary anxieties in the patients” who had “phobia and ignorance” about cancer. Physicians claim each patient gave “oral consent”, but a material fact was not disclosed to patient and many of the patients were not in a physical or mental condition to give valid consent.

    Hospital administration tried to cover-up lack of consent, and some written consents were fraudulently obtained after the fact. Three physicians at the Hospital resigned when the administration did not seriously consider their complaints about the experiment. The chief of medicine at JCDH and the principal investigator were placed on probation for one year by the New York State medical licensing board, as a result of a unanimous guilty verdict on fraud/deceit and unprofessional conduct.

    Two years later, the American Cancer Society elected the principal investigator to be their Vice-President.

    Hyman 251 N.Y.S.2d 818 (1964), rev’d 258 N.Y.S.2d 397 (1965) (litigation regarding whether director of hospital could have access to patients’ medical records)

    Katz, Experimentation with Human Beings (1972) pp. 9-65 recounts more than you want to know about this experiment, including affidavits of physicians on both sides.”


    Importing Cocaine to Murder Blacks:

    >>>””For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.” So begins the controversial three part series, published last August, by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News.

    The story makes the allegation that beyond selling drugs in America in the 1980’s, the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, fighting a Cuban-backed Nicaraguan regime, were largely responsible for introducing crack-cocaine into the U.S. This issue has raised interest to the point that a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has begun hearings on it.

    The story has been picked up by other news organizations, notably The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. These two papers question some of Mr. Webb’s sources and his findings, especially regarding the introduction of crack into America, the targetting by Contra dealers of African-American communities and the involvement of the CIA.

    In his defense, Mr. Webb told The Washington Post that “this (series) doesn’t prove the CIA targeted black communities. It doesn’t say this was ordered by the CIA… Essentially our trail stopped at the door of the CIA.”

    A 1989 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that looked into this issue also stopped just short of implicating the CIA. It stated, “There are some serious questions as to whether or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua.”

    Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of that sub-Committee, had this to say about the recent allegations raised by Mr. Webb and others, “There is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, or on the payroll of the CIA were involved in drug trafficking while involved in support of the Contras, but it is also important to note that we never found any evidence to suggest that these traffickers ever targeted any one geographic area or population group.”


    From a Town Hall style meeting in Los Angeles:

    >>>”JEFFREY. KAYE: Did the CIA dump drugs into the black community?

    GARY WEBB, San Jose Mercury News: We don’t have any evidence so far that they did it directly. And what we have evidence of is that men working for a CIA run army did do that.

    JEFFREY KAYE: With the knowledge of the CIA?

    GARY WEBB: That’s the part we don’t know. That’s the part we don’t know. I mean what we know is that these guys were working for a CIA army, they were meeting with CIA agents before and during the time they were doing this. What happens from there is sort of where we ran into the wall of national security.

    JEFFREY KAYE: On Friday, CIA Director Dutch did not directly address the broad question of whether the CIA knew about drug dealing. Instead he cautiously denied a conspiracy.

    JOHN DEUTCH: As of today, we have no evidence of a conspiracy by the CIA to engage in encouraging drug traffickers in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America during this or any other period. However, I am going to wait and see what the results are of this Inspector General’s investigation.

    JEFFREY KAYE: Even without hard evidence connecting the CIA with drug dealing, many have accepted that conclusion. A standing-room-only crowd of about fifteen hundred attended a forum on the subject in September. L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters was one of the organizers.

    REP. MAXINE WATERS, (D) California: (September) Now there are people who will say, Well, Miss Waters, maybe the CIA wasn’t directly involved. Maybe it was just the people from Nicaragua and other places who were kind of CIA connected. Maybe they just turned their heads. Maybe they just kind of blinked and said, well, it doesn’t make any difference whether they delivered the kilo themselves, or they turned their heads while somebody else delivered it, they’re just as guilty. (applause)

    JEFFREY KAYE: Waters has made this issue a priority.”


    John, this is NOT going to be a simple, soundbite, talking points discussion, and if you think there are people who will sit idly by while forces on the right try to frame this complicated issue on their own terms, people like ME are proof positive that you need to THINK AGAIN.


  2. Shouting Thomas March 23, 2008 at 5:53 pm | | Reply


    You’ve just tried to defend Rev. Wright by delivering yet another of your Rev. Wright-type tirades.

    I’m goint to repeat.

    1. You’ve never lived in a segregated society.

    2. I know the area you live in, which is one of the most liberal in the country. It is extremely unlike that you have ever experienced overt racism. Such displays would be roundly condemned.

    3. All your life, you’ve enjoyed racial preferences.

    4. Although you continue to insist that Ku Klux Klan activity is ever present, in the area where you live I can guarantee that you have never met a Klansman or come close to encoutering Klan activity of any kind. It doesn’t exist.

    These loony Rev. Wright tirades of yours are the acting job of a drama queen. You are just pretending that there is something in your life to justify your paranoid hatred of white America. The outraged, hyper-sensitive posture that you strike is motivated solely by a desire to blackmail whites emotionally. You are not a political pundit. You just have extremely bad manners and unlimited greed.

    And, that Cobra pseudonum! What a laugh! Pure phony 60s radicalism from a kid who has been on the receiving end of preferences his whole life.

    You are a fake, Cobra. Why do you continue to put us on with this act? The act is laughable.

  3. Cobra March 24, 2008 at 8:22 am | | Reply

    Stephen writes:

    >>>”You’ve just tried to defend Rev. Wright by delivering yet another of your Rev. Wright-type tirades.”

    Not at all. The message the right wing is trying to send is that all black greivances and issues have their genesis in Jeremiah Wright’s pulpit.

    I’m smacking down that lie, and CHALLENGING conservatives like John to address the underlying issues. For example…

    I want to hear John Rosenberg comment on US Government sponsored medical experimentation on African-Americans, and then have him explain to me WHY African-Americans should blindly trust the health care system?

    John writes:

    >>>>”The primary characteristic of the conflict over race in America is not that the problem is nuanced and complex; it is that it is hard. There is no solution that will satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t mean some solutions are not far better than others.”

    “Far better” for whom? Your anti-affirmative action “initiatives” are certainly “better” for white males, I’ll grant you.


  4. Dom March 25, 2008 at 9:37 am | | Reply

    I assume the reference is to the Tuskeegee Experiment. The only official associated with the full study was a black woman, the only whistle-blower was a white man. The US Government’s response was the system called “Institutional Review Boards”. I’ve worked in Cancer Research Centers. I know what the IRB’s are capable of. Americans are very well-served in health research.

  5. Cobra March 25, 2008 at 10:05 pm | | Reply

    Dom writes:

    >>>” The only official associated with the full study was a black woman, the only whistle-blower was a white man.”

    So you’re saying that in 1932 in the Jim Crow Deep South, a Black Woman, on her own autonomy, devised and funded the Tuskegee Experiments, which lasted for 40 years?

    Not even YOU believe that, Dom.

    I’m waiting for John Rosenberg, the presumed expert on US Medical Experiments on African-Americans to comment.


  6. Dom March 27, 2008 at 11:21 am | | Reply

    I’m saying that the ethics of an experiment in the 1930’s can not be judged by today’s standards. I’ve worked with today’s standards. I was not given access to the last 3 digits of a patient’s zip-code to maintain the patient’s privacy. As I said before, Americans are very well-served by the health professionals, and it would be hard to find a body of cancer research that is up to American standards.

    BTW, why did you cite Gary Webb above? All of it sounds like proof that the American government is NOT involved with drug trafficking. Eg, “As of today, we have no evidence of a conspiracy by the CIA to engage in encouraging drug traffickers in Nicaragua or elsewhere in Latin America during this or any other period.” Even a chucklehead like Waters was out of her element.

Say What?