Responses to Barack Obama’s speech on race have fallen largely along partisan lines. Obama supporters, and Democrats in general, have, almost without exception, praised the speech. Meanwhile, most conservatives have found fault with it. As someone who certainly will not vote for Obama, my feelings are no exception to this rule. I found Obama’s speech uncannily honest and nuanced. In that respect, it was a credit to his forthrightness. At the same time, his words call into question his judgment.
It seemed to be that the Senator was genuinely ambivalent about his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. His rhetoric reflected this: Obama wavered from harsh criticism to soft euphemisms regarding the former leader of his church. Reverend Wright was referred to as “an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy” who made remarks that “that could be considered controversial.” This is neither helpful nor accurate; what distinguished some of Wright’s sermons was not their “fierceness”—Obama, myself, and most people I know can be “fierce” critics of U.S. policy—but rather their insanity and racism. His comments were not ones that “could be considered controversial”—they were controversial. It’s true that at times Obama condemned Wright without reservation, but it’s this very inconsistency that is most disturbing. Obama claims that “disowning” Wright would be akin to renouncing his own grandmother. This is simply ridiculous. For one, Obama was born to his grandmother; he chose Rev. Wright as his “spiritual advisor” as an adult. Equally inaccurate is the implication that Obama’s grandmother’s comments are on the same moral level Wright’s. On the one hand, his grandmother speaks privately of personal feeling of racial prejudice. On the other, Wright publicly preaches that the America deserved 9/11 and that the U.S. government introduced the AIDS virus to kill black people Wright’s implication that America got its comeuppance on 9/11 was the liberal version of Jerry Falwell’s infamous post-9/11 comments. Falwell’s offensive words created a firestorm of controversy, and rightfully so. Unlike Falwell, though, Wright has never apologized I think it would be perfectly fair for John McCain to be judged negatively if someone like Jerry Falwell were his pastor—and Falwell does not hold views nearly as outrageous, or dangerous, as Wright.
Again, Obama deserves praise for his candor and nuance. But some issues are not nuanced, but simple; the Senator’s refusal to recognize that a man who does some good, but preaches such hate, deserves—and did deserve for each of the last twenty years—full disowning and condemnation is a strike against his judgment. It’s particularly ironic, and unfortunate, that in a political climate where gray issues are painted black and white, that Senator Obama chose to portray a black-and-white controversy as gray.