Obama’s Speech in Selma Was an Answer to Those Who Question His Love for America
Historians who want to understand Obama will find few better summations than the two paragraphs at the core of this speech:
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.
Those 230 words are a precise distillation of Obama’s view of America, and the role politics must play in it.
The first paragraph is Obama’s case for hope: America is improving; it has always been improving, and to deny that improvement is to steal from Americans a belief in their country that they have more than earned. “To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency,” he said.
The second paragraph is Obama’s case for change: America’s sins are not vanquished; its hatreds remain real; its racism still breathes. “We know the march is not yet over,” Obama said, “the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”