Barack Obama's (Im)perfect Union: An Analysis of the Strategic Successes and Failures in His Speech on Race
Utley, Ebony, Heyse, Amy L., The Western Journal of Black Studies
In March 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was engulfed in political controversy. Video recordings of his pastor and spiritual advisor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., were broadcast on every news channel and widely circulated on the internet. The recordings featured snippets from Wright's most provocative sermons. One of those sermons, originally titled "Confusing God and the Government" delivered on April 13, 2003, was re-titled "God Damn America" on YouTube. Wright preached that the United States government enacted genocide against Native Americans and African Americans, helped imprison Nelson Mandela, and manipulated God's word and will to sanction slavery and segregation. Wright implied that a racist U.S. government supported the infusion of drugs into black communities, frequently planted evidence against people of color, and preferred to imprison African Americans rather than provide them with the best education. Wright (2003) was also quoted repeatedly exclaiming, "God damn America."
On March 14, 2008, Obama issued a statement denouncing his long-time pastor's proclamations: "I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies." In that statement, Obama (2008a) also described a personal relationship with Wright and explained that Wright "has never been my political advisor; he's been my pastor." These clarifications, however, failed to satiate the news media and skeptical American voters. Obama hoped to finally put the issue to rest by directly addressing the controversy in a speech delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, titled "A More Perfect Union."
In this essay, we argue that Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" was an appropriate and successful response to a political-personal crisis. Obama negotiated the controversy surrounding his personal relationship with Reverend Wright by acknowledging racial disparities in the United States without placing blame for those disparities. Through this approach, Obama successfully maintained a post-racial rhetorical stance that appealed to extremely diverse audiences. We further argue, however, that the speech failed to accurately represent a racially differentiated United States of America. By sanitizing the country's histories of chattel slavery and racism, Obama's speech reified many harmful racial tropes. Our essay exposes the potentially damaging strategies Obama employed to resolve his political-personal crisis and considers the rhetorical implications of a post-racial discourse.
The essay proceeds in four sections. In the first section, we explain the rhetorical situation and consider historical and rhetorical antecedents of political-personal crises for African American candidates. The second section is an analysis of the speech for Obama's successful post-racial strategies in addressing the Wright controversy. The third section examines the potentially harmful tropes Obama employed as he addressed the larger issue of American race relations. The essay's discussion of implications concludes with a contribution to the study of post-racial rhetoric.
The Rhetorical Situation and Political-Personal Crisis
Barack Obama entered the political limelight in 2004 with his Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention. Since then, the man and his messages have become popular subjects of academic study and critique (Asante, 2007: Burnside & Whitehurst, 2007: Clayton, 2007; Dorsey & Diaz-Barriga, 2007: Durum, 2008; Frank & McPhail, 2005; Fraser, 2009: Harris, 2009; Harris-Lacewell & Junn, 2007: Hill, 2009: James, 2009; Marable, 1990, 2009; Mazama, 2007; McIlwain, 2007; Rowland & Jones, 2007: Waiters, 2007). Some rhetorical scholars credit Obama's ecumenical discourse for its ability to "recast the American dream from a conservative to a liberal story" (Rowland & Jones, 2007, p. …