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Barack Obama's (Im)Perfect Union: An Analysis of the Strategic Successes and Failures in His Speech on Race

EBONY UTLEY—CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, LONG BEACH AMY L . HEYSE-CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, LONG BEACH

Abstract

In (he midst of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, 2008 presidential candidate Barack Ohama resolved the political-personal crisis surrounding his racialpotitics by rhetorically presenting himself as a post racial candidate. After reviewing the strategies of other African American politicians, we posit thai Obama 's adoption of race-neutral rhetoric in his March 18. 2008. speech, "A More Perfect Union, " was a strategic rhetorical choice at the time. However, we also assert that his post-racial politics were compromised by I ) his presentation ofa sanitized version of the United States'history of racial injustice and 2) a tendency to reify harmful racist stereotypes.

In March 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was engulfed in political controversy. Video recordings of his pastor and spiritual advisor. Rev- erend 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 Ameri- cans 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, frequentiy planted evidence against people of color, and preferred to imprison Af- rican 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 ve- hemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categori- cally 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

Amy L. Heyse, Ph.D.. is an Assistant Profe.i.tor of Communication Stiulies at California State University, Long Beach. Her research focuses on women's rhetoric and political rhetoric and engages issues of collective memory, rhetorical subjectivity, and gender.

Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D.. is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her re.search interests include race, love relationships, and hip hop. She is also working on it hook titled the Gangsta's God: The Quest for Respect- ability in Hip Hop.

The Western Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 33, No. 3, 2009 153

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