Obama’s Speech I: Movements v. Elections

The full transcript of Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race this morning is here. 

Throughout this campaign, I – a Clinton supporter – have found myself relating more personally to the foibles of the Obamas.  I’m supporting Clinton for a number of reasons I’ve elaborated on previously, but I’ve often felt it was a real shame she and Obama were running at the same time, because I’d have enjoyed vigorously campaigning for him.  My personal resistance to Obama has to do with a) an elitism and arrogance I associate with the highly educated worlds in which we both orbit, b) the disingenuous notion that he is not like other politicians, and c) the problematic conflation in his campaign of movement building with electoral politics.  But there is a great deal more to the man and his candidacy that attracts me than these three strong negatives.  His speech this morning on “the contradictions” inherent in “the people that are a part of [him]” illustrates perfectly that he, more than some of his most vociferous supporters and surrogates, understands (or at least acknowledges) the messy work involved in fighting for social inclusion and positive social change. 

Ethnic/racial minority politicians are in a uniquely precarious position, as they often must strike a balance between addressing the distinct concerns of their particular ethnic group without alienating the white majority, or the white elite likely still in power regardless of the demographic make-up of the populace.  Obama’s campaign has been illustrative of this delicate dance.  I’ve been drawn to the complexities involved in Obama’s mixed-race identity, the multiple intersections that he straddles (race, religion, geography, etc.), and how I – like many, I imagine – can find some of my personal story in his own.  Obama is skilled at what we academics call “code-switching,” i.e., knowing which cultural codes (language, norms, practices) to invoke depending on his circumstances, and being able to do so successfully. 

One of the disappointments of Obama’s unity message for cynical, classist me is that it has inspiringly invoked history without inculcating in those he seeks to mobilize to do much more than act on behalf of his campaign.  I’ve often wondered if Obama won the election if one of his first acts would be to reinvigorate and expand the AmeriCorps and VISTA programs, or, if he really wanted to be bold, reinstate the draft.   Both would be fitting for his messages and what I think are his core beliefs of inclusive service to one another and to our country.  These calls to action are commendable and long overdue from our political leaders, but they appear to have been channeled towards the rather narrow goal of getting him elected.  And as I’ve written before, organizing is dramatically different – and in opposition to – governing.  I think a key problem with Obama’s campaign is that he’s been trying to merge these contradictory activities, and has revealed himself to be less effective at the latter – if actions such as his “present” votes or failure to foresee the dangers in his relationships with Rezko and Wright are any indication.

Obama’s core coalition has been disproportionately one of African-Americans and wealthier whites (including their young offspring), the two groups in the U.S. most likely to live in racially (and for affluent whites, economically) segregated communities – whether involuntarily or voluntarily. As the Civil Rights Movement amply demonstrates, this coalition can certainly advance social change, as the two population segments bring mutually beneficial socio-cultural and financial resources to collective action.  Yet, in this election cycle this traditional coalition has been unable to penetrate more ethnically and economically diverse regions (excluding polarized cities).  For all the Obama campaign’s success with grassroots mobilization, it’s been unclear what exactly his supporters are organizing for, beyond getting this particular person elected.  As illustrated by the harshest reactions to Wright coming from one of Obama’s biggest bases: young supporters, this fiasco with Wright reveals fighting for social justice and change is a lot more complicated than electing a president.

Listening to Obama today, this coalition’s limits is his cross to bear in trying to bridge movement building with running for national office.  I admire the audacity of trying to put a community organizer in the White House, but I think it’s going to be a longer, more incremental struggle to bridge that gap.  Obama alone did not inspire a movement, but he deserves credit harnessing and shining the light on pre-existing, widespread social justice activism.   Regardless of whether Obama advances beyond the primary or general election, we owe him an enormous debt for amplifying these debates in the public sphere – however unsophisticated and superficial they seem now – about race, inequality, opportunity, privilege, inclusion, and activism. 


4 Responses to “Obama’s Speech I: Movements v. Elections”

  1. 1 Christian Prophet
    March 18, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Barack Obama wants to both eat his cake and have it. He wants voters to rise above race and religion, while appearing religious himself. He is in deep trouble if a spotlight is placed on the non-racial aspects of his own THEOLOGY. See:

  2. 2 Pizza Diavola
    March 18, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    he’s been trying to merge these contradictory activities

    Pretty much. The problem with his movement is that, as far as I can tell, it has no long term goals aside from “elect Obama.” Where are the grander goals, the greater vision? What does he want to do with all the young voters he’s mobilized? I’d be reassured in this respect if only he would speak more concretely of the liberal policies he wants — but mostly what I hear from him is talk of bipartisanship. Sorry, no – if he has a liberal movement behind him, I expect him to use it to achieve liberal goals.

  3. 3 donna darko
    March 18, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Obama’s mixed race identity is very much a part of his philosophy and campaign. He should talk about that but even mixed race identity would paint him as a black man.

  4. 4 gmanedit
    March 19, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Speaking of race is a diversion. I want to hear more about the residents of the eleven Rezko buildings in Obama’s district—buildings that Obama helped direct taxpayer money to—who lived without heat and hot water.

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