by Tracy R. Walsh
This seemed to me to be a speech written in the hope it would be read 50 years hence. He’ll get some criticism for not talking about any specific policy issues, but that’s what happens when you swing for the rhetorical fences; you can’t get too bogged down in the mundane arguments of the moment. And what struck me most about it was how little he talked about Martin Luther King. He mentioned him only a few times, but spent much more time talking about ordinary people. This was the running theme of the speech and perhaps what was most important about it.
Brentin Mock agrees that history will be the judge:
Obama’s speech wasn’t, as rapper Keith Murray would say, the most beautifulest thing in the world, but it accomplished what Obama has been setting out to accomplish from the beginning: staying the middle-road course in effort to appeal to the liberals and conservatives among all races in the spirit of perfecting the union. Whether his legacy will reflect a victory on this as an honorable effort or flat failure won’t be determined for decades.
But Jamelle Bouie argues that now is no time for bromides:
What Obama didn’t say, but what the civil rights movement recognized, is that the specific experience of African-Americans requires – and required – a specific response. It’s what motivated the Freedman’s Bureau of Reconstruction, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for an inner city “Marshall Plan” during the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. … [T]he economic legacy of white supremacy is still with us, and—outside of half-measures and rhetoric—we’ve shown little appetite for dealing with it. Simply put, 350 years of bondage and oppression can’t be ameliorated with 50 years of citizenship rights, tepid liberal programs, and “colorblindness.” That includes the president, who works hard to avoid race and its role in shaping our problems.
Jelani Cobb agrees:
That Obama could not – or would not – elucidate his plans to address the intractable realities of race and the economic consequences of those realities, even as he acknowledged that “black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind,” calls into question the logic of a black Presidency in itself. There was something despair-inducing about the way he said “change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington,” an oratorical turn that cloaked the fact that something vital was being reneged upon. …
Obama’s tic for rhetorical evenhandedness meant that even in his discussion of racial inequality, he had to nod to black failings by pointing to “self-defeating riots” and “criminal excuse-making.” And his tendency to chide black America in public appears all the more cynical when compared with his refusal to point to his own responsibilities to that community as Commander-in-Chief.
Peniel E. Joseph is similarly disappointed by Obama’s vagueness:
[W]here were the specifics that would have truly honored the March on Washington? The 250,000 people who gathered 50 years ago were looking for specific solutions, not just soaring rhetoric. Where was the president’s promise to sign a series of executive orders that would focus on anti-poverty efforts or increase access to higher education? Or governmental action that perhaps could ease the transition of ex-offenders back into communities or promote jobs programs, especially in economically devastated urban and rural communities?
Meanwhile, Ed Kilgore detects a hint of despair from the commander-in-chief:
What struck me most about it was that it seemed a wistful tribute by a politician hemmed in by politics to a social movement that alone has the power to overcome the resistance to change. “Change does not come from Washington but to Washington,” Obama said, and while some may view that as an abdication of responsibility, it’s more a plain fact of the long struggle for justice and equality. This passage in particular seemed a recognition that Obama – once thought to be the Joshua who would bring the civil rights movement into the promised land its “Moses generation” could not reach—was passing the torch to the next generation: There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.
And Jeff Shesol believes Obama was holding himself back:
When Obama permits himself to speak about [race and equality] — as he did in his 2004 debut at the Democratic National Convention, in his “race speech” of 2008, in his unscripted remarks about the Trayvon Martin shooting — he conveys an understanding that enriches our own. On each of those occasions it was said, rightly, that only Obama could have given that speech. But one of the disappointments of yesterday’s speech was that it could have been given — credibly, if less movingly — by any one of a number of Democrats. It was largely devoid not only of first-person pronouns, but first-person perspective.
Meanwhile, TNC hears echoes of W.E.B. du Bois:
Like du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. There has never been any other such moment in American history. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people, to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that this these people have a point. His biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don’t know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.
Indeed, if we are – as the president asks us to be – honest with ourselves, we will see that we have elected a president who claims to oppose racial profiling one minute, and then flirts with inaugurating the country’s greatest racial profiler the next. If we are honest with ourselves we will see that we have a president who can condemn the riots as “self-defeating,” but can’t see his way clear to enforce the fair housing law that came out of them. If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy. It is heart-breaking to see this. But it is also clarifying.