WASHINGTONAlmost any form of political incorrectness has a seductive quality about it, even if what is said or written is downright outrageous. But when it actually sheds light on some important truths, and when the person uttering them has a wide audience, it takes on a subversive significance. Such was the case of the speech on race given by Barack Obama in Philadelphia on March 18.
I eulogize that speech with the proviso that I dont share many of Obamas ideas on the role of government. Like so many liberals, he fails to see the contradiction between denouncing the governments intrusion into ones body, ones bedroom or ones conscience and advocating approaches to social ills that entail spendingand therefore taxingmore of the peoples money and limiting their free choice.
In any case, the speech did more than provide historical context and nuanceit went to the heart of racial tensions in America.
Political correctness mandates that we talk about African-Americans purely as victims of white society. Yet there are internal reasons that also explain the relative failure of many African-Americans to prosper in recent decades. They have to do with the politics of victimhood and of transferring the responsibility for ones condition to forces beyond ones control. This kind of politics fails to take into account the achievements of African-Americans in business, the arts, sports and other pursuits.
The fact thatas Obama stated in his speech while criticizing the Rev. Jeremiah Wrights outdated visionmany blacks have made progress in the United States attests to the opportunities for social mobility that contemporary institutions offer to the children and grandchildren of slavery.
Political correctness mandates that self-styled spokesmen for minorities dont trumpet white values because by doing so, they betray their peoplethe reason why much abuse has been hurled at Bill Cosby for criticizing the social mores of the ghetto. Obama cut not only through the racial but also the ideological divide when he praised the value of self-help and referred to it as conservativemeaning he had no qualm in finding value in what is a cornerstone of the social vision espoused by the adversaries of liberalism.
Political correctness mandates that we do not acknowledge fear of one another because violence feeds on that primeval instinct. But suppressing fear in speech, which is what political correctness does, is not the same as overcoming itit merely makes sure, as Obama put it, that that anger (is not) expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table.
Some have taken Obama to task for equating different forms of racial mistrust in the most personal segment of his speech. Referring to the Wright, Obama said, I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmothera woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me...but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.
As Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, not exactly a liberal publication, recently wrote in the Financial Times, This is actually where the subtlety of Mr. Obamas argument lies. The foundation of his policies on race, he goes on to say, has been that black progress means, in Obamas own words, binding our particular grievancesfor better health care, and better schools, and better jobsto the larger aspirations of all Americans.
The speech induces us to believe that this can only happen on two conditionsthat blacks stop seeing themselves as a defensive enclave within the larger American society and that whites stop masking their yet unresolved prejudices against blacks in the euphemisms of political correctness.
I happen to think that only the blending and transformative powers of a free societypolitically, economically and morally freewill dissolve fear and mutual grievances into something approaching a colorblind environment. That means, in my view, that some of the protectionist and interventionist policies that Obama advocates will not achieve the end he eloquently defined. But the mere fact that a man with a real shot at the presidency was willing to address these truths turned this presidential campaign, for one brief moment, into something very meaningful.
His personal narrative and oral gifts made him uniquely positioned to give that speech. It is commendable that, having so much to lose, he chose to do so.