Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.
~~Thomas Jefferson

March 18, 2008 likely will prove to be an historic day.

Barack Obama, the first viable African American candidate for president of the United States, delivered a remarkable speech today in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the cradle of American liberty.

Much more obscure, and likely to be lost to the vast throng of posterity, the Wall Street Journal posted a hard-hitting and brutally honest Shelby Steele essay, which purports to explain an important component of the Obama phenomenon: race.

Taken together, they offer a revealing and insightful window into our history, our present reality, and our current dilemma.

Shelby Steele:

Barack Obama is absolutely correct that race has historically proven a disadvantage for African Americans seeking opportunity, prestige, and political power. Notwithstanding, Steele asserts that "race," at least at this particular moment, "is a powerful positive force in the body politic" filling the sails of the unique Obama candidacy. In agreement with Geraldine Ferraro’s now famous remark, Steele affirms: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."


Obama's success is incumbent on a desperately desired "opportunity for whites to [personally] experience racial innocence."

Moreover, his campaign is an "allegory" for collective racial "redemption, reconciliation, and transcendence."

Perhaps we are all trying to get right with a just God?

Steele labels Obama a "bargainer,” skilled at manipulating an ancient white angst and dread over racial injustice .

Steele: "Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism."

Bargainers present themselves as vehicles for white absolution. In return, whites, desperately in need of atonement, jump at the opportunity to enter into this mutually beneficial contract and accord full privileges and more to the convenient and pleasing vessel of deliverance.

Is there a downside to this reciprocally satisfying relationship between consenting adults?

According to Steele, the bargainer must surrender his individuality and complexity, opting for "invisibility" as an inoffensive and safe "conduit" for racial harmony.

"Thus, nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama's political aspirations," asserts Steele, "than the revelation...that he sat Sunday after Sunday--for 20 years--in an Afro-centric, black nationalist church in which [whites] could never feel comfortable."

Steele is exactly right. Reverend Wright proved Big Trouble. Was Obama cornered with no way out?

What would he do?

He showed brave, facing the pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

In fact, I think he might have escaped.

I am anxious to hear Steele's analysis of the Obama speech, but it seems to me that the stealthy "bargainer" forever shed his cloak of invisibility and forthrightly confronted the issue of race in America.

Moreover, he abandoned his weasel words in re Wright. He was there. He heard the sermons. He disagrees. He was offended. But then he offered an incredibly nuanced (and to me compelling) explanation of why he continues to love his pastor, his church, and his fellow congregants.

I thought Obama demonstrated an expert feel for American history. For the most part, he got the story right: the details, the ideals, the contradictions, the injustices, and the triumphs.

He also somewhat uncharacteristically placed himself and his candidacy plainly within the context of the long struggle to live up to our nation's founding principles, at the same time returning to a more familiar theme, casting himself as the embodiment of E Pluribus Unum.

It would have been more meaningful if he had said this when his public life was not at risk--but I thought he was on to something when he exhorted us to forego the toxic "gotcha" racial politics.

I find significant discomfort in the parade of conservatives, who, in our pursuit of Obama and his pastor, have adopted the language of the politically correct Left. If we have any hope of returning to sanity on the issue of speech, we will find it necessary to break the cycle of acrimonious sanctimony. Perhaps we should take the initiative and grant clemency when we hold the upper hand in one of these disgusting and frightening public spectacles.

The repeated accusations of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are inflicting great injury to our civil society. Accepting the proposition that "hate" and "hate speech" are the ultimate mortal and unpardonable sins is an unwise long-term strategy for conservatives; this invidious protocol is a rigged game invented by liberals that we can never ultimately win.

The downside of the Obama speech:

1. VDH is right: Obama did not address the key questions concerning "damage" done by the Reverend Wrights of the world. What Shelby Steele described as “this usually hidden corner of contemporary black life: a mindless indulgence in a rhetorical anti-Americanism as a way of bonding and of asserting one's blackness.”

2. Also as Steele notes, and Obama confirmed today, the "candidate of change" offers nothing "more than Democratic Party boilerplate" drivel. The Senator got all the questions right--but then failed to deliver on any answers. Where is the beef? After such a promising start, he offered us nothing of substance to consider.

The bottom line: this speech was a wonderfully well-crafted masterpiece of oratory. Did it save him from a complete and total meltdown? I think so. Was he able to deftly change the subject? Most probably. However, he walks away from this skirmish sullied and wounded. We know more about this candidate than we did a week ago—and it is not all good. We are watching him now with a new wariness.

However, in my mind, this relationship with his misguided pastor does not disqualify him to be president.

UPDATE: One last thought: it should not surprise us that the man who seems to be running for Redeemer in Chief begins this speech with America's "original sin."