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John Mcwhorter Reviews Obama's Speech

We reached out to several friends of the magazine to respond to Obama's big speech in Philadelphia today. Here's what John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, had to say.

In his speech in Philadelphia this morning, Barack Obama revealed that he is most definitely his own man.

Those who have found Obama's statements of dissociation from his pastor Jeremiah Wright's statements a tad studious must now be satisfied. This time, Obama did not rest with incendiary and divisive--words which harbor potential toleration (i.e. maybe a little divisiveness is healthy?).

He pegged Wright's recreational alienation as wrong, as stereotyping, as a "profound mistake," as founded upon a canard that America has made no progress on race.

It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one's elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright's vintage.

For a light-skinned half-white Ivy League-educated black man to repudiate, in clear language and repeatedly, the take on race of people like Julian Bond and Nikki Giovanni is not only honest but truly bold.

A certain strain of black bloggers will be blowing their tops for a week, while some black writers of mature years will remind us in editorials that Wright's vision of America is more present-tense than Obama's speech implies.

Of course Obama softened the blow: and rightly. For people who lived under Jim Crow, indeed "the memories of humiliation, doubt and fear have not gone away." And given that one does not need to be a professional hothead to feel that race still determines black people's fate to whatever extent, Wright's views on race and patriotism, whether we like it or not, are a heightened rendition of a state of mind not uncommon among black Americans.

More importantly, however, Obama knows the danger of letting this background sentiment morph into histrionic utopianism which "distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change."

Obama knows that anti-whitey sermons are, in 2008, Sunday morning's gangsta rap--infectious confection.

I've been wondering whether the dust-up over Obama and Wright was mere political hardball or based on actual misunderstanding of black community dynamics. Obama has now clarified the latter, to an extent that ought to satisfy any reasonable listener.

As of this morning's speech, any notions of the Obamas as having sat in their living room on 9/11 cheering as the Twin Towers fell is indefensible, and should be dismissed as recreational blather of no more weight than Jeremiah Wright's.