A More Perfect Union: Examining Senator Obama's Speech

March 26, 2008

Extended excerpts from Senator Obama's speech on race are followed by questions for classroom discussion, as well as additional suggestions for class dialogue, writing, and inquiry.

It does not seem unreasonable to call Senator Barack Obama's March 18, 2008, address historic. In it he spoke in detail about race in America with a directness that is rare in the nation's political discourse. At the very least, the enormous amount of attention the speech has generated makes this a very teachable moment on a major American issue.

Unfortunately, most of the media and pundit attention have focused on how the speech has helped or hurt Senator Obama's presidential chances and what the polls show—in short, the effects of the speech on the Obama-Clinton-McCain horse race and not on the substance of the speech, which is the subject of the readings and activities here.

Following a brief introduction on Senator Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, are extensive excerpts from Obama's address. These excerpts address Obama's reference to the stain of slavery that marked the Constitution; Obama's personal details, reaction to his pastor, observations on racial inequality in America and the resentments they produced in Reverend Wright and many other African Americans; white resentments toward blacks and how they are exploited by politicians and others; and where we go from "racial stalemate."

Questions following each section aim to help students understand what Senator Obama said. Discussion and other activities following the fourth section invite students to talk about race and race relations through their own experiences as well as to express opinions about the senator's remarks.

There is no more controversial subject and none more sensitive in America than race and race relations. "'It is not an easy subject for black people or white people,' said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian who writes on slavery, told the New York Times . Because people from different backgrounds don't often talk openly about race, "It is extremely easy for people to misspeak you don't understand the language. People don't understand where the land mines are. They sometimes use the wrong words or are condescending or seem to be condescending when they're trying to be honest. It's easy for people to take offense when the wrong language is used, particularly when they've got within them a lot of anger and are looking for someone to beat with a small stick. In those circumstances, it's often better to say nothing.'" (Janny Scott, "Talk About Race," New York Times, 3/23/08)

Before you open a discussion of race and race relations in your classroom, you may want to clarify your own goals for the discussion and ensure that you can create a safe environment for discussing these issues. You might find it useful to read "Teaching on Controversial Issues" on this website.

See also for possible use "Affirmative Action and the Courts" and "Race, the 14th Amendment & Our Schools: The Supreme Court Rules."

 


Introduction:

Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama

As the African-American pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright, now retired, at times delivered fiery, controversial sermons. Two excerpts from them have received much media attention. Right after 9/11, he said:

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

On another occasion, Reverend Wright declared: "The government gives them [African-Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible 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."

Columnist Nicholas Kristof (New York Times, 3/20/08) writes that to white people, "it has been shocking to hear Mr. Wright suggest that the AIDS virus was released as a deliberate government plot to kill black people." He adds that "Many African-Americans even believe that the crack cocaine epidemic was a deliberate conspiracy by the United States government to destroy black neighborhoods."

"One of the things fascinating to me watching these responses to Jeremiah Wright is that white Americans find the beliefs so fringe or so extreme," says a former member of Wright's church. "When if you've spent time in black communities, they are not shared by everyone, but they are pretty common beliefs."

Reverend Wright is the person who helped to bring Senator Barack Obama to Christianity, baptized him, married him and his wife Michelle, and baptized his children. So when excerpts from his sermons appeared on You Tube, on TV, and in newspapers, reporters asked Obama about them repeatedly. Did he agree with his pastor and spiritual advisor? No, he said, he didn't. "These are a series of incendiary statements that I can't object to strongly enough."

But questions persisted about the relationship between Obama and Wright and interfered with Obama's campaign to become the Democratic nominee for president. This led Obama to speak directly about his pastor's beliefs, reactions to them, the larger issue of race relations in America, and how the nation can now move beyond the "racial stalemate."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about this introduction? How might they be answered?

2. What knowledge, if any, do you have about what Reverend Wright characterizes as U.S. support for "state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans"? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. What connection do you think the pastor sees between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

4. What justification, if any, is there for the pastor's statement that the government
"gives" drugs to African-Americans?

5. What is a "three-strike" law? Why do you suppose the pastor opposes such laws?

6. Why does Reverend Wright think America deserves to be damned by God?

7. How would you explain the disparity between the views of many blacks and whites about such questions as whether the US government introduced crack to destroy black neighborhoods? As background, students might consider facts that are well-known to many black Americans: a) From 1932-1972 a federally financed Tuskegee research program allowed 399 working class African-American suffering from syphilis to be left untreated-without informing them about this "experiment." President Bill Clinton apologized for this program in May 1997. b) Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the Senate failed to pass anti-lynching measures (the House passed three between 1920 and 1940). The Senate voted to apologize for its failure in 2005. There is no accurate tally of the African-American victims, but at least 5,000 were lynched.
 


Below are a series of excerpts from Senator Obama's March 18, 2008 speech, "A More Perfect Union." Each excerpt is followed by a set of questions to help students consider that section of the speech.


Student Reading 1:

Excerpts from Senator Obama's speech, "A More Perfect Union"

A.

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union" [the preamble to the Constitution begins]. The document they [the founders] produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations."

For discussion

1. The Constitution, as originally written, does not include the words "slaves" and "slavery" but there are two important references to them. (See Article I, Sec. 2 and Sec. 9) Why do you suppose that the words "slave" and "slavery" are not mentioned? What, specifically, are the two references saying? How do they "stain" the Constitution?

2. What was done about this "stain" in later years? (See and discuss Amendments XIII, XIV and XV.)
 

B.

"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents.
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.

"But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man... a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

"The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through-a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. As William Faulkner once wrote, 'The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.' We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

"Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

"Legalized discrimination—where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, of fire departments—means that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

"A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods—parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement—all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.

"This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. For the men and women of Revered Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.

"And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. The anger is not always productive; indeed all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

For discussion

1. Senator Obama criticizes Reverend Wright sharply but also will not "disown him." Why not?

2. Why do you suppose that he included in his speech reference to the racial stereotypes he heard from his grandmother?

3. What examples from African-American history would support the quote from William Faulkner?

4. What "disparities that exist in the African-American community today" can be traced to "the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow"?

5. What specific examples does Senator Obama provide of legalized discrimination? What questions do you have about any of them? How might they be answered?

6. What "humiliation and doubt and fear" and anger do you think Reverend Wright and others of his generation experienced? Why does Senator Obama think it so important that these feelings be understood by others?

7. What makes Sunday morning "the most segregated hour in American life"?
 

C.

"In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working-and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

"Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of race injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

"Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze—a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns—this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."

For discussion

1. What is the "zero sum game"? What does it have to do with the anger that "exists within segments of the white community"? Why only "segments"?

2. What do school busing, affirmative action and fears about crime have to do with white resentments against blacks?

3. According to Senator Obama, how has this anger been exploited? By whom? Why?

4. What are "legitimate concerns" of some whites? How does Senator Obama think they misplace the blame for them? Where, in his view, does the blame lie?
 

D.

"That is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. I have never been so na•ve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.. But I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and in my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

"For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans—the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism, they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

"In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

"We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the OJ trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news.Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'

"This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn.This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

"This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship overseas for nothing more than profit.

"It is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins."

For discussion

1. What is the "racial stalemate" Americans are in, according to Senator Obama?

2. Why does Senator Obama return to his disagreements with Reverend Wright in connection with this stalemate?

3. What is the senator's advice to African-Americans? To whites?

4. What does he mean by "Not this time"?

5. How, according to the senator, will we achieve "a more perfect union"? What do you suppose makes him think so?
 


Group Go-Around

To start multiple conversations and ensure that multiple points of view are heard, a group go-around is useful. Divide the class into small groups of four to seven students facing each other in a circle. Ask them to discuss just one question: What is your overall reaction to Senator Obama's speech?

In this go-around, taking no more than one minute, each student in turn responds to the question without interruption. The teacher can act as timer.

Next, have the students engage in some general conversation for 10-15 minutes. First, do students have questions, especially clarifying questions, to ask of each other based on what they've heard? After completing this process, invite students to discuss any response or any issue that's been raised.
 


Fish Bowl

A "fish bowl" offers an opportunity to engage the entire class in one small group discussion. This technique is especially useful when students have very different perceptions of an issue.

Invite five to seven students to begin the conversation. Ask them to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room. Try to ensure that the group reflects diverse points of view. Ask everyone else to make a circle of chairs around the fish bowl so that there will be a smaller circle within a larger circle. Only people in the fish bowl can speak. The students in the outer circle are to listen as intently as they can.

The teacher asks a question and invites each student in the fish bowl to speak to it if he or she cares to. The teacher then invites clarifying questions and further comments from students in the fish bowl.

After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fish bowl conversation by tapping a fish bowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat.

Some questions for fish bowl students to consider:

1. What "complexities of race" have you experienced? Is it a kind of complexity that Senator Obama does not think that the country has "worked through"?

2. Have you experienced any of the conversations among people of your own race or ethnicity (black, white, Latino, Asian...) that touched on what Senator Obama calls "resentments" that "aren't always expressed in polite company?" Do you think people of different backgrounds should be able to discuss these issues with each other? What problems might there be in such a discussion? How might you structure such a discussion to ensure that everyone is heard and respected?

3. Is there a "chasm of misunderstanding that exists between races" in this school? In this classroom? If so, what is it? Why does it exist? What might be done about it?

4. What sources of resentment do you as a black student or a white student think you have experienced on racial matters?

5. Can you think of a time when someone appealed to others' racial resentments in a way that distracted from the real issue or problem at hand? What happened? Can you think of a way you or someone might have redirected attention to the real problem or issue?

6. Senator Obama discusses briefly his view of a path to "a more perfect union," one that at least reduces resentments and leads to greater understanding. What, if anything, would you add to his series, beginning, "This time"

7. What do you think needs to be done on this path in this classroom? In this school? In this community?
 


For inquiry

There are, of course, many possible subjects for student inquiry on racial issues in our country. Ten are listed below. Have students independently or in small groups focus on a subject of interest to them and then formulate one or two questions with which to guide an investigation. See "Thinking Is Questioning" on this website for suggestions on how to help students learn how to ask good questions.

  • Jim Crow
     
  • Discriminatory practices experienced by African-Americans
     
  • Discriminatory practices experienced by Latinos, Asian Americans, Arab Americans and/or Native Americans
     
  • Affirmative action and white resentments
     
  • The solidly Democratic South before the 1960s
     
  • The Republican "Southern strategy" in connection with the such events as: Ronald Reagan's opening his presidential campaign with a speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi; George H.W. Bush's campaign use of an ad featuring Willie Horton; George W. Bush's speaking at Bob Jones University
     
  • US progress in race relations
     
  • School desegregation
     
  • President Lyndon Johnson's reported statement at the time of his signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "There goes the South for a generation."
     
  • School busing
     
  • The Tuskegee research on syphilis
     
  • Lynching in the United States
     
  • Reactions to and analysis of Senator Obama's speech by: conservatives, liberals, black media, etc.
     
  • Reactions to Senator Obama's speech by students' family members or community leaders

 


For citizenship

Given the history of race in America, any consideration of it is almost inevitably controversial. But if we don't consider race relations, the issue tends to breed resentments of the sort discussed by Senator Obama. Is a schoolwide examination of racial issues something that students would like to undertake? If so, what would it look like? See "Teaching Social Responsibility" on this website for suggestions.
 


For writing

Write a paper of a few hundred words on one of the following subjects:

1. My racial resentments

2. My personal experience with racism

3. My experience with good race relations

4. Creating "a more perfect union" in America

5. A critique of Senator Obama's speech

6. Race relations in my neighborhood
 


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org