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The Reaction

Barack Obama directly addressed the role of race in his campaign, and in the country overall, in a highly anticipated speech yesterday. By now you've likely heard it or heard some reaction to it. Here's a round-up of what we've read:

Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic):

I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.


I have never felt more convinced that this man's candidacy - not this man, his candidacy - and what he can bring us to achieve - is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man's faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

John McWhorter:

He pegged Wright's recreational alienation as wrong, as stereotyping, as a "profound mistake," as founded upon a canard that America has made no progress on race.

It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one's elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright's vintage.

Charles Murray (National Review):

I read the various posts here on "The Corner," mostly pretty ho-hum or critical about Obama's speech. Then I figured I'd better read the text (I tried to find a video of it, but couldn't). I've just finished. Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I'm concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America. It is so far above the standard we're used to from our pols.... But you know me. Starry-eyed Obama groupie.

Alan Wolfe :

I cannot recall any leader or potential leader in the last two or three decades asking us to do that. I hope we are up to the challenge. I do not believe--nor, from his speech, do I think that Obama believes--that to think seriously about race we have to vote for him. But I do think that when we address race, we ought to do it, not by running endless videos of people, black or white, who have said outrageous things but by finally having the honest conversation about race we keep promising ourselves--and keep postponing. Agree or disagree with Obama, I ask people who are less inspired by him that I am, but at least acknowledge that in this presidential candidate, we have a man of honor--and an honest man.

Ross Douthat (The Atlantic):

It had its imperfections, yet for all that I think Charles Murray makes the crucial point: Can you think of a better speech on race in America delivered recently by any politician, black or white?


I do think the problem Jeremiah Wright creates for Obama's campaign remains unresolved, to some extent, since there was nothing Obama could say in a single speech that would undo the perception created by his long affiliation with Wright and his church - the perception that he's only confronting what's wrong with Wright's style of black politics because the media narrative is forcing him too, and that when the spotlight isn't on him, he's more interested in fitting in and feeling comfortable than in, well, speaking truth to power. But by using the Wright controversy as an opportunity to play up their candidate's strengths - as an orator, but more importantly as the rare politician who can deliver a thoughtful, nuanced speech and make you feel like he means it - the Obama campaign made some sweet-tasting lemonade out of some awfully sour lemons.

More after the jump...


Todd Gitlin (The New Republic):

This speech was a triumph on so many levels, does one dare hope it will turn the trick for hordes of parsing skeptics and listeners whose eyes did not water?


For those who have not yet voted, and crucially to the superdelegates, he raised the stakes, asking them all: Can you, too, keep your cool and your heat at the same time? The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he said, had spoken in an "incendiary" manner, but Obama offered himself as the man who rises from flames and invites you to rise from your own. He took a grievous embarrassment and moved his lesson to the plane of prophecy. Talk about hope; talk about audacity. Tears came to my eyes. I don't think I'm especially hard-hearted, but I cannot think of another time when the speech of a presidential candidate watered me up.

M.J. Rosenberg (Talking Points Memo):

It's no secret that I admire Barack Obama and believe he would be a great President.

But, until today's speech, I did not see him as a President. With this speech, suddenly I did. He does not just transcend race. He transcends himself.

This man is even bigger than the moment.

Glenn Greenwald (Salon):

Personally, I found the speech riveting, provocative, insightful, thoughtful and courageous -- courageous because it eschewed almost completely all cliches, pandering and condescension, the first time I can recall a political figure of any significance doing so when addressing a controversial matter.


Obama's insistence that Americans are hungry for that sort of elevated debate and are able to engage it -- and his willingness to stake his campaign on his being right about that -- has been, in my view, one of the most admirable aspects of his candidacy.

Barbara O'Brien:

Obama's speech was challenging. He assumed that his audience could hear his words and and think about them. He assumed people could get beyond simple narratives, sound bytes, and jerking knees.

My thoughts are still developing but I think it was a possible game changing moment in this election. The safe move would have been to reject and repudiate Wright's words and try to get the story behind you, but with the next primary still weeks away there's no guarantee that would happen. Obama HAD to address this issue as it played to the fears some white Americans have about a black candidate. His ability to confront the issue head-on and to relate it to our own personal feelings and experiences is why Barack Obama has risen from a no-name junior Senator from Illinois to the most inspiring politician in more than a generation. As you can see from the reactions above, even those with differing ideology and politics can see the brilliance of his thinking and his ability to address complex thoughts in an engaging manner. After 8 years of Bush, doesn't that sound great?

Post your favorite reactions here.


You know he struck a chord with people when somebody at The National Review calls his speech brilliant.

Strategiaclly, he managed to take a potential liability and, by addressing it head-on and not simply wishing it away, turned it into an asset that people will remember long after they forget who Revernd Wright is.

And no doubt in the less tony bowels of the internets, these reactions to his remarkable speech will be described as "fawning," "drooling," etc. by people who will then burn the strawman of of "black racism" in order to exculpate their own sins.

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