How Does Obama's 2008 Speech On Race Hold Up Today?

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 18, 2020 6:53 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Twelve years ago today, a Democratic presidential candidate gave what some have called one of the best political speeches of all time. It was by Barack Obama. It was all about race, a speech called "A More Perfect Union." But a lot has changed since then when it comes to how America talks about race. And that got NPR's Sam Sanders wondering, does that speech hold up today?

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Flashback to this time in 2008. It's not Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders; it's Hillary and Barack. Barack Obama had won the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, and the thinking was he'd be able to build a multiracial coalition and win the presidency. But then this story came out of nowhere - tapes of Obama's longtime pastor saying things like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMIAH WRIGHT: No, no, no - not God bless America. 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...

JON FAVREAU: I was in headquarters in Chicago. A bunch of us from the communications team, press team just stood around someone's TV watching it and were like holy [expletive].

SANDERS: That's Jon Favreau. He is now the head of Crooked Media and the host of the podcast "Pod Save America." But back then, he was Obama's chief speechwriter, and they had a big problem on their hands. Reverend Jeremiah Wright was the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He had married the Obamas and baptized their children, and so these tapes that were leaked of Wright from old sermons - they became perfect fodder for Obama's opponents on the left and the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WRIGHT: America's chickens coming home to roost.

SANDERS: Ultimately, it was decided that this Reverend Wright problem would need a big solution. Obama called up Favreau and gave him the ideas for an entire speech about race in America.

FAVREAU: Even though the guy said he was going to give me stream-of-consciousness thoughts, he goes, here's what I want to say - one, one A, two, two B, C. And he just starts going through this incredibly detailed outline for an hour on the phone.

SANDERS: That became this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: We the people, in order to form a more perfect union...

SANDERS: "A More Perfect Union" was delivered on March 18, 2008. That phrase comes from the Constitution, but the speech was very much about Obama's own nuanced story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I'm the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.

SANDERS: The big idea of the speech was that to move forward on race, all of America would have to forgive each other and come together. On that theme, there is a section of the speech where Obama compares Reverend Wright, who had said all those incendiary things, to his grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me...

SANDERS: And this is where he gets really nuanced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: ...But a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

SANDERS: Depending on who you ask, there would be no President Obama without "A More Perfect Union." But when I hear that speech now, I wonder if it would still work today. Since that speech, the Black Lives Matter movement happened. Charlottesville happened. That is a long way away from just forgiving your white grandmother's racist comments.

So I called up someone who literally wrote the book on this speech. Well, technically, she was the editor. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting is a humanities professor at Vanderbilt University. That book - it's called "The Speech."

When the speech was done, there were already folks saying it's Obama's Gettysburg Address - whatever, whatever. Did you have those feelings?

TRACY SHARPLEY-WHITING: No, I did not.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: OK. Explain. Explain.

SHARPLEY-WHITING: Because I think the Gettysburg Address and other things - there was so much at stake at those moments. And for me, what was at stake was the candidacy of a man who aspired to be president of the United States.

SANDERS: But Professor Sharpley-Whiting told me that Obama, in that moment in '08, on the cusp of the presidency, he kind of got a pass.

SHARPLEY-WHITING: He was symbolic of something that was necessary and needed. And for black folks, oftentimes, the symbol is more important than what cashing the check might also deliver. And so Obama was never forced to cash a certain check in certain ways by black people.

SANDERS: Alicia Garza is one of those black people who, for years, has been asking Barack Obama to cash that check. She is currently a principal with the Black Futures Lab, but she's perhaps most well known as one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Garza told me this one moment in the speech, it really sums up the way in which, on race, Obama perhaps got it wrong.

ALICIA GARZA: Barack Obama actually makes this comment. He says, you know, the problem wasn't that Reverend Wright made these comments. The problem is that it views America as static.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: He spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made.

GARZA: But actually, in a lot of ways, racism is the thing that has endured.

SANDERS: For Garza, Obama didn't do enough to tell people, all people, how much so much of our lives are still built upon racism and discrimination.

I did find one part of his speech that holds up maybe no matter which way you come at it. I called up an old classmate of mine. Her name is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. She is now the head of a group called the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBTQ rights group. We were grad students in '08 when that speech was given, and a professor of ours stopped class twice in one week just so we could break down that speech line by line. Jasmine said the speech, in at least one way, it still speaks perfectly to this moment.

JASMINE BEACH-FERRARA: We're living in a moment where there's so much tendency to be reductive or essentialist around identity or around partisanship - meaning, here's the identity you possess. Therefore, this must be what you think. Or here's the party you're registered with. Therefore, this must be what you think.

SANDERS: She told me the best parts of this speech are Obama using the nuance in his own story to speak to the nuance that exists in all of our stories.

BEACH-FERRARA: To me, it opens up the sort of possibilities around where we go together.

SANDERS: If you look at it that way, maybe Obama's big race speech, 12 years old today - maybe it is still one for the books.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "PRAYER (FOR THE PEOPLE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.