The adjective of choice appears to be "electrifying" when it comes to descriptions of Illinois State Senator Barack Obama's keynote address before the Democratic National Convention. Obama is clearly a rising star in the Democratic Party. His political skill can be demonstrated by the fact that his speech not only received nearly universal praise from liberals, but also from conservatives such as David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, and Rush Limbaugh, among others. With his former opponent embroiled in an interesting sex scandal, he is expected to win the race for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, which would make him only the third black Senator since Reconstruction. Many are already anointing him the first black president, even though the nation still knows very little about him.
Was Obama's speech worth getting excited about? In my opinion, no. I say this as someone who has been and continues to be a strong supporter of his. I agree with the assessment of Obama's fellow Chicagoan, Paul Street, who recently wrote, "The world view enunciated in Obama's address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space." Street goes on to list many of the absurdities promoted by Obama in his big moment. However, he neglects the passage I found most offensive, in which Obama echoed Bill Cosby and denounced "the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."
Contrary to popular myth, there is no rampant anti-intellectualism in the black community. Anti-intellectualism has been part of American culture from the very beginning and is just as prevalent among whites as it is among blacks, if not more so (See Richard Hofstadter's classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). By singling out black anti-intellectualism, Obama is only helping to reinforce the racist stereotypes that many whites have about black educational habits. Obama should ignore popular myths and talk about the real problems black Americans face in education: inequitable school funding, biased tracking and standardized tests, disproportionate representation in special education, ethnocentric curriculum, disparate disciplinary treatment, and poor teacher quality.
Obama (a former community activist and civil rights lawyer) has an interesting past. He is the product of a liaison between a Kenyan goat herder and a white woman from Kansas. He was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood living in Indonesia with his Muslim stepfather. He has all the same ingredients that make Colin Powell a media darling and even more: light skin, great speaking ability, charisma, good looks, and youth. Add to that the fact that he gave an overtly conservative speech in front of a bunch of Democrats and it's no wonder the media is fawning over him. Newsday hailed him as a "New New Democrat." A gushing Fox News pundit described him as a "centrist, DLC Democrat." Air America Radio's Randi Rhodes described his politics as "straight down the middle." As an Obama supporter, I'm not sure how to react. This doesn't sound like the same Barack Obama who bitterly denounced the war in Iraq, saying "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." Was this the same Barack Obama who gave the right-wing DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) the cold shoulder after The Black Commentator alerted him to the fact that they were claiming him as one of their own?
The Barack Obama I chose to support was a progressive and wasn't afraid to admit it. Progressive organizations such as the Planned Parenthood Council, the Illinois Environmental Council, the National Association of Social Workers, and Citizen Action Illinois have all given him a perfect rating of 100. He has been given high ratings by organized labor and has received the endorsement of the National Organization for Women and the Illinois Farm Bureau. Perhaps even more impressive are the low ratings given to him by right-wing organizations. The National Rifle Association gave him an F rating whereas Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control gave him an A. He has received the admirable rating of "zero" from National Taxpayers United and the Federation for Right to Life. He has received low and moderate ratings from the Chamber of Commerce and Manufacturer's Association. Clearly, Obama hasn't had any qualms about standing up to powerful right-wing and private interest groups in the past.
His progressive legislative accomplishments in just seven years rival those of legislators who have been in office for decades. He passed a law requiring the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases. He has also sponsored legislation requiring police officers to record the race, age, and gender of individuals they stop in order to document the level of racial profiling. His accomplishments as a member of the Committees on Health & Human Services are too numerous to list here, but they include sponsoring legislation for universal health care and an additional $4,000,000 in funds for AIDS prevention in minority communities. His record on civil rights, education, trade, the environment, the economy, and campaign finance reform is almost everything a progressive Democrat could hope for (especially from a U.S. Senate candidate). Obama has been an especially strong defender of women's rights. In addition to protecting the right to an abortion, he is a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and helped pass the Right to Breastfeed Act and the Equal Pay Act. He has also passed or sponsored numerous laws to protect victims of domestic violence.
You would never know any of this by listening to his convention speech. In the National Review Online, Roger Clegg pointed out that his speech could have just as easily been given at the Republican convention. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. However, I don't believe that Obama has compromised his principles yet. In order to win a statewide election, he must appeal to a broad base of voters. His feel-good and conservative rhetoric is probably an attempt to achieve that end. He spoke very frankly about this in his dialogue with the Black Commentator, saying that "My job, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate ... [is] to persuade as many people as I can, across the ideological spectrum, that my vision of the future is compatible with their values, and can make their lives a little bit better ... To some, this approach may appear naÔve; to others, it may appear that Iím headed down a path of dangerous compromise. All I can tell you is that in my twenty years as an organizer, civil rights lawyer, and state senator, Iíve always trusted my moral compass, and have thus far avoided compromising my core values for the sake of ambition or expedience."
Few politicians would speak this frankly. When presented with a question about their own personal integrity, most would repeat some platitudes about how devoted they are to the public interest. Note that Obama said he has not been compromised "thus far," which implies he may be in the future. His response strikes me as honest. In the Senate, he will obviously face enormous pressure from interest groups, his Senate colleagues, party leadership, big business, and other centers of power. The Senate is one of the most elitist and racist institutions in the entire country. Obama may share the fate of the last black Senator from Illinois, Carol Moseley-Braun, who faced extreme scrutiny and stiff of opposition which eventually drove her out of office. Despite her many flaws, Moseley-Braun was still semi-decent by U.S. Senate standards. Will Obama risk bringing his decency with him to the U.S. Senate? I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Another reason to support Obama's ascent is the fact that he seems to have effectively displaced Tennessee's Harold Ford as the party's most promising rising star. Ford gave the keynote address to the DNC in the year 2000, and was similarly hailed as the party's future. It is well-known that both Ford and Obama have national ambitions. If one of these two is to become the first black president, we should pray that it is Obama. Harold Ford is known for grandstanding against the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and his slavish devotion to the right-wing agenda of the DLC. The DLC Democrats are the direct ideological descendants of the "Dixiecrats" of the Jim Crow era. They see black people as a corrupting "special interest group" within the Democratic Party. While it's possible (maybe even probable) that Obama will sacrifice his principles to ambition in the long-run, he can at least say that he had some principles to begin with, unlike Harold Ford, Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and many of the other people being touted as possible presidential candidates in the future.
Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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