April 1, 2008

Obama's March 18 speech called 'unprecedented, risky, daring' by Cornell panelists assessing race and politics

"This nation has many problems, and electing Sen. [Barack] Obama as the president is not going to solve them all, but I think it is an important renewal," said Cornell history professor Margaret Washington. The speech Obama gave on race relations in America on March 18, she said, "represents principle, integrity, honesty, boldness, and it represents taking a chance. At this point of time, he is our best hope."

She was speaking on a panel of five Cornell professors and administrators on "American's Original Sin: Obama, Race, Religion and Politics" before several hundred people in Sage Chapel, March 27.

Obama's speech in Philadelphia, in which he described the U.S. Constitution as "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery," has been watched by millions both on television and on the Internet.

Introducing the panel, moderator Michele Moody-Adams, Cornell vice provost for undergraduate education, remarked that the Democratic candidate's "speech on race, religion and politics ... has been deemed by many to be the best political speech since JFK's remarks about religion and politics during the 1960 presidential campaign. Some have even described Obama's effort as one of the best political speeches in American history."

The panelists discussed the nature and significance of Obama's speech and the controversy related to remarks by Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which were a significant impetus for the speech.

"I was relieved that Sen. Obama stood by his pastor without condoning or agreeing with everything he said because he recognized that they have a spiritual bond," said Washington.

Nick Salvatore, the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and professor of American studies, said the speech provided "the bridge to a vision of a common good that might span the racial divide that has been such an important part of our collective history." It was, he said, the most "powerful" and "honest" political speech ever delivered by a presidential candidate because Obama "bluntly addressed the responsibilities and choices before all Americans."

Panelist James Turner, professor and founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, referred to the speech as "unprecedented, risky and daring," noting that it will "constitute a new chapter in the making of U.S. history."

Focusing on Obama's single reference to "radical Islam," Omer Bajwa, Cornell's first Muslim chaplain, said the candidate's "lack of public defense of Islam" has led many educated and young professional Muslims to ask themselves, "how do you support a candidate that does not want your support?" However, Bajwa also acknowledged that he was inspired by Obama's message that "we need to work toward a more perfect union."

Rev. Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, said he viewed the speech as "an opportunity seized" because based on "the teaching of multifaith traditions among different communities," it "acknowledged complexity," which "most politicians rarely do." At the same time, Clarke called the speech "an opportunity lost" because Wright's remarks were often taken out of the context of black religious tradition.

Addressing questions from the audience, the panelists agreed with Salvatore when he said that Obama "personifies the racial complexity in America, which is a tremendous symbol both within and beyond our nation."

The panel was sponsored by the Africana Studies and Research Center; American Studies Program; CRESP Center for Transformative Action; Cornell United Religious Work; Office of the Dean of Students; Office of the Deputy Provost; Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Faculty Development; and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Graduate student Zheng Yang is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.