Alter on Obama's Race Speech

Race, Thomas Jefferson said, is "a firebell in the night." You can't unring a bell, which is one of the reasons so many commentators thought Barack Obama was cooked in January when Hillary Clinton's surrogates introduced race into the campaign.

Those analysts were wrong; Obama didn't become the "black candidate" then. And I hope they're wrong again when they say that as long as Obama is talking about race instead of the economy and health care, he's losing.

For the bravest thing Obama did in his historic speech at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia was to ring the bell louder. He chose to focus on an uncomfortable topic that most Americans would rather leave unspoken. He offered an honest and gutsy tour of the complexities of our wounded national psyche, even explaining that his own beloved white grandmother engaged in racial stereotypes. And he articulated a big part of what his supporters liked about him in the first place: the chance to take us into a better racial future.

This speech, which he wrote himself over the last couple of days, was not necessarily the obvious path when confronted by the campaign crisis involving the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory sermons. To understand the quality of it, consider some of the Obama campaign's other options.

If he were approaching the controversy conventionally, Obama would have simply expanded on his March 14 cable interviews and denounced Wright's comments (e.g., "God damn America!") more loudly, then waited, as he said, for the issue to "fade into the woodwork." Given the dire economic news and whatever else might end up in the headlines, this approach would have likely worked just fine. Even if he threw Wright under the bus, black voters would still turn out for him. And enough white voters would have been placated to pull him through the next few weeks without collapsing. After all, the primary calendar continues to make Obama the heavy favorite for the nomination.

Or Obama could have dealt briefly with the Wright problem, then pivoted to his stump speech about the challenges facing the country. This would have satisfied the conventional preference of consultants for the candidate to "stay on message." Discussing, as he did, such things as what was good about Wright, bad about school busing and complicated about racial feelings did not serve that traditional political objective.

At a minimum, Obama might have made some obvious concessions to political realities (other than standing between American flags). Instead, he went so far as to depart from a recent tag line in his stump speech and refrained from saying "God bless you, and God bless America," which would have added a contrived close to an otherwise authentic speech. I don't believe Obama objects to the concept of God blessing America, only the clichéd nature of the sentiment. Over time he'll need to show other, less clichéd ways of showing his love of flag and country.

To me, the only line missing from the speech was one Obama has used in the past when asked if his daughters should be given preferential treatment when they apply to college a decade from now. He has said no, and agrees that affirmative action should not be extended to the children of wealthy minorities. He might have added that point to reinforce his nuanced view of race.

But history will give him this: Barack Obama didn't simply touch the touchiest subject in America, he grabbed it and turned it over and examined it from several different angles and made it personal. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he rang the bell hard and well.