March 18, 2008


SAM SMITH - The most notable fact about Barack Obama's speech on ethnicity is that it took him so long to make it, an uncomfortable reminder of the hyper-cautiousness of this candidate who proposes to produce so much change. It wasn't until he had been embarrassed by the words of his black preacher that Obama felt compelled to address a topic on everyone else's lips.

It wasn't a bad speech, albeit delivered in that preachy, pompously didactic tone that annoys some and causes others to swoon. Its most interesting section, however, was the part in which Obama finally emphasized something that should have been front and center from the start: he's not black; he is multicultural and half white at that.

But then when you're going for 90% of the black vote in Texas you don't want to talk much about such things. Pennsylvania is a little different; there Obama has to reach white voters who aren't comfortable with him yet.

Said Obama:
"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners - 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, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one."
It's a point he could have usefully brought to the fore a lot sooner but there aren't enough self-identified multicultural voters in this country yet, and to make this a major theme would have taken more courage than, say, yakking about hope. So once again, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright did his friend a favor by making it easy for him to talk about it.

In the end, Obama's speech was of a familiar pattern: all evocation and analysis, but no solutions - in political terms, all foreplay and no climax. We now know more about Obama's past than is the case with many politicians. His true view of the future, however, remains a mystery.