Special Reports

Putting race in the race

"Barack Obama had only words today, but it would take a heart of stone and a closed mind to deny their power at this moment in American history," Robert Stein writes of the Illinois senator's March 18 speech on race. "There can and should be debate over what he said and didn't say, and it should start now on the level to which he has raised this campaign. Anything less would be a shame."

How well did the blogosphere meet Stein's challenge? As always, you can find any answer you want.

If you're a pessimist, look no farther than Instapunk, where Old Punk accepts Obama's invitation to debate: "You've just given life to the suspicion that black people in America are, and have long been, a fifth column — unanimously hating the very country that has afforded the highest standard of living ever achieved by black people in human history. We're teetering at the edge of believing that you're a secret society, a massive collection of sleeper cells just waiting for your chance to do serious harm to the rest of us. You've made it possible for us to believe that. Because you're never outraged by what the worst black people do."

That post immediately provoked a lot of outrage, and it seems to have surprised only Old Punk that it brought an approving crowd of Nazis and white supremacists flocking to his site. (Style note to bloggers: If you write, as Old Punk did, that "I am sick to death of black people as a group," expect a lot of people to show up at your party wearing white sheets and hoods.)

Some of the response to Obama's speech was frankly and predictably partisan. Obama's fans quickly ran out of adjectives; "a searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech," writes Andrew Sullivan at TheAtlantic. "Pah! It's just the old leftist shtick," John Derbyshire fumes at The Corner. "Blame whitey, and raise high the red flag of socialism." In a follow-up post, he adds, "A pro-Obama emailer whines to me that the Pastor Wright business is 'a Swift Boating of Obama.' Well, duh!"

But if you're an optimist, you will find a lot of people thinking hard and reacting in ways that defy stereotypes.

For example, the Old Punks of the world will be surprised at the black bloggers who like that Obama found a balance between "structural inequality and individual responsibility," as Marc Lamont Hill puts it at The Root.

"He even came at his own peeps a little," Field Negro agrees. "But it’s cool 'O' man, we get it ..., this is about letting the rest of A-merry-ca know that you don't bite." Jimi Izreal at The Hardline contrasts Obama's approach with that of the "Old School" and "Jeffersonian (George, not Thomas)" views of the senator's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "Older black folks are among the most intolerant people in America," Izrael writes. "Obama is of the New School, who see no point in indicting Da White Man for being sheltered and xenophobic because times aren't getting any better slamming white folks for every foul and foible." In a video dialogue at bloggingheadstv, writers John McWhorter and Glenn Loury explore what happens now that Obama is no longer seen as a "blackfaced Bobby Kennedy."

Then there's the response at The Corner of conservative Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, the controversial book on IQ. Drawing from his own experience to explain how hard it is to write about race (and how easy it is to be misunderstood), Murray credits Obama with talking "about race in ways that no other major politician has tried to do, with a level of honesty that no other major politician has dared, and with more insight than any other major politician possesses."

At Crooked Timber, philosopher John Holbo dissects the stance of conservatives, like Murray, who find much to praise in Obama’s analysis of America’s racial situation but gag at his policies to make the country more just and equal. "The audacity of hopelessness," he calls it.

And then there's John Rosenberg at Discriminations, who argues that what Obama didn’t say is more important than his eloquence about black anger and white resentment. (Full disclosure: John is a former teacher and long-time friend.) "How are white and Asian Americans supposed to realize that [black] dreams do not have to come at the expense of [white and Asian] dreams as long as blacks receive preferential treatment based on their race?" he asks. Where will Obama stand this fall on the five state ballot measures around the country to outlaw discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of race or ethnicity?

For better or worse, this conversation has just begun. So hope that it takes its cues from Charles Murray, not Old Punk and Jeremiah Wright. And then buckle up.