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Was it Too Little, Too Late?

Illustration for article titled Was it Too Little, Too Late?

It was an amazing speech, a brilliant speech. It was brilliant both in substance and in delivery. He told a convincing, moving story about his own racial history. He was able to paint a truly hopeful, but pragmatic, picture of why people should come together across races.

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He attempted to explain why he would not renounce Rev. Jeremiah Wright, because renouncing Rev. Wright meant renouncing the black church and the black community. He tried to shift the conversation at the end to the set of critical domestic and foreign policy issues that progressives have wanted to tackle for years.

But I'm worried it was it too little, too late.

It was too little in that while addressing race it equated white racial resentment (which scholars know is really just a more polite label for white racism) with the black anger and skepticism that comes out of past and current racial discrimination.

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I suspect blacks will give Obama a break on this score, but those comments will not satisfy those large segments of white America that harbor racial resentment. It was too little when he argued that we can move forward toward racial justice for all without the "need to recite…the history of racial injustice."

It was too little because even though he strongly and correctly argued that today's racial disadvantage is based on the white supremacy of the past, we know that many, many whites do not connect the black situation today to either the injustices of the past or the present.

The history must be retold if a case is to be made to explain black disadvantage in this period. It was unfortunate when he implied that blacks were not willing to come together in multi-racial coalitions now or in the past. In the great populist and labor multi-racial coalitions of the late 19th century and early 20th century, during the Civil Rights era, and in modern times it was whites liberals and progressives that walked away from those coalitions with the predictable result of sparking much greater support for black nationalist movements such as those of Marcus Garvey, the Black Power movement, and Min. Louis Farrakhan.

I am afraid it is too late for a different set of reasons. Some of us have known for several months that there was an opposition playbook, (reporters from the United Kingdom were asking me about some of these issues in January) that was going to repeatedly hammer at Obama for being too politically radical, nationalist, and perhaps Islamic. They were going to hang the politics of the black community around Obama's neck. It has not just been the conservative pundits who have been gearing up for this type of attack. Salon.com for example, a liberal website that has tilted consistently toward Clinton, had a story today that was one stop shopping for anti-Obama forces looking for ties between the Senator and "scary" black progressives, white sixty radicals, and thoughtful, moderate Palestinian scholars, who — horror of horrors— are pro-Palestinian.

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How many more buttons can one push to politically discredit a black candidate? I was also told by a mainstream South Carolina newspaper editor that despite them putting up a "fact" page, many of their white readers were much more willing to believe the rumors about Obama being a Muslim, who was perhaps educated in part by people with radical Muslim sympathies, instead of the facts presented by a credible newspaper.

We know from the 2004 "Swift Boat" campaign against Senator Kerry that, in this era of multiple media sources, viral attack campaigns are very hard to combat and can be effectively deadly.

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I hope I am wrong, but it is very possible that Obama's speech cannot convince those that need convincing the most, particularly in November.

What does this all tell us? If I'm wrong, and I could be, then the nation may be ready to move forward on race, or at least put race aside and tackle the issues that affect working and middle class people of all races. Many black and other people I've communicated with already think I'm wrong and that his brilliant speech was effective.

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It restored hope among his supporters, and convinced many whom had been skeptical that there was more to the man than just hollow rhetoric. If the racialized anti-Obama campaign is effective, however, and one news source suggests that it already has been (while increasing the net likelihood that blacks will vote for Obama, 56 percent of voters are reported to say that his ties to Wright decrease their likelihood of voting for the Senator), it appears that only a candidate that is politically whiter than Senator Obama can win high national office.

What do I mean by politically whiter? Not that it would take a more conservative politician, but that it would take a politician who either has no ties or has renounced all ties with grassroots and activist members of the black community who hold conventional black political attitudes.

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We all know (or are) members of the black community who are black nationalists, former black socialists, black feminists, liberals way to the left of most Democrats, and even the occasional black conservative. The great majority of us are exceedingly unlikely to denounce these family members, friends, and congregants. We may not talk about them in mixed company (as Obama hinted in his speech) because we know what type of ugliness will follow, but neither will we cut them loose.

Why?

It is not only because often when we look at them we see ourselves, or our former selves, but because we understand the deep, continuing effects of structural black disadvantage; because we have personally experienced slights that remain a quotidian part of the black experience (see today's outstanding essay on this website by Larry Bobo and Camille Charles for a more nuanced exposition of this reality than I could hope to provide).

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If it really is too little, too late, the consequences of this reality are what one might expect. We can expect a black community even more disillusioned with American politics than it was a year ago, and a nation that is continuing down a reckless course toward racial disaster.

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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