Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently called race-based slavery a “birth defect” that still troubles our nation. Her words were notable – not just for their metaphorical precision, but that she uttered them at all.
Conservatives usually are mute on slavery’s lengthening legacy, but Rice let loose. “Black Americans were a founding population,” Rice said during a March 27 interview with the Washington Times. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together – Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”
Because of this initial inequality, “descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that,” she continued. “That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.”
The surprisingly effective presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D‑Ill.) has amped up the current relevance of race. In fact, a controversy surrounding Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, has placed racial discussion directly on the media frontburner.
The recently retired pastor had delivered a number of fiery sermons, including one in which he suggested the U.S. imperialist past played a possible role in motivating the 9⁄11 terrorist attacks. He thundered, “God damn America … for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
Wright’s recorded histrionics initially inflamed a white public unfamiliar with the kind of performance art that is common to black American religious expression. And, although the pastor was a bit dramatic in his presentation, many other folks have made his point.
In his 2006 book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer noted that in the last century, the United States has overthrown more regimes than all other nations combined. “No nation in modern history has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores,” he wrote. This was Wright’s point as well.
Nevertheless, pundits across the political spectrum denounced the pastor’s remarks. And when placed in context, Wright’s aired comments reveal a cut-and-paste job designed to provoke. This deceitful editing by most major media, particularly Fox News, incited a small backlash from a public increasingly sickened by political gutter sniping.
What’s more, the controversy offered Obama an opportunity to broach the subject of race, a topic his advisers reportedly urged him to shun. Luckily, Obama overruled them.
His March 18 speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” was a nuanced masterpiece, exquisitely calibrated. Perhaps he should have tackled this subject before he realized the impossibility of running a “post-racial” campaign in a race-scarred nation, but he did a good job of catch up.
Not only did he soothe the racial rancor churned up by the tendentiously edited Wright clips, he also demarked a more panoramic vision of the United States than any candidate has in recent times. His speech opened the public space for Condi’s entry into the conversation.
Obama also pre-empted his critics’ efforts to exploit cultural differences between white and black Americans. He deftly sketched the races’ differing historical trajectories and bemoaned our arrival at a seemingly insoluble stalemate.
But, he noted, we have a choice.
“We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism,” he said in his speech. “We can tackle race only as spectacle, as we did in the O.J. trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news …. We can do that,” he said. “But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”
Obama’s speech initially baffled pundits unaccustomed to complexity in campaign rhetoric. However, the speech has generated a slow roll of praise, and many commentators now list it as one of this era’s most significant addresses.
At the very least, it has provoked a dialogue about race so serious that it even has Condoleezza Rice talking black.