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.