Opinion: Columnists

Obama's not-so-centrist Hampton speech

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Opinion,Gregory Kane,Columnists

To hear Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen tell it, President Obama is "a man of the center -- or maybe a wee to the left of it."

And that 2007 speech Obama gave at Hampton University, the one in which he tried to channel his inner Malcolm X? Why, that "might have sounded innocuous to the average [white person's] ear."

I wish I were as confident of discerning what does or does not sound innocuous to the ear of the average black person as Cohen is of telling us what's innocuous to the average white ear, but I do know that Obama's Hampton University speech wasn't that of a "man of the center." Obama began his speech by praising Rev. Jeremiah Wright, at the time the pastor of the future president's church in Chicago. Wright, as we know from his speeches, clearly isn't a "man of the center." And men and women of the center would be hesitant to praise him, as Obama did in his speech.

Perhaps the speech just wasn't meant to be taken seriously. After all, that ludicrous phony accent he adopted had less the feeling of a political address than of an Amos n’ Andy episode -- you know, that old radio show in which white actors faked black accents. But politicians “of the center” don’t tolerate a Jeremiah Wright, not even for show, much less praise him. The Democrat that can claim to be a “man of the center” – and I can’t believe I’m writing this – is former President Bill Clinton, who at least had the guts to call rapper Sistah Soulja on her inflammatory comments when he was running for president.

Just after Obama was done with the "I loves me some Jeremiah Wright" portion of his speech, he told those assembled that he had just come from a "commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots."

Ah, a commemoration of lawlessness and arson and looting and mayhem from 1992! But Obama brought up the riots to drive home a larger point. He told the audience a story about a pregnant woman who was supposedly shot during the Los Angeles riots. The bullet lodged in the arm of her unborn child. Doctors were able to save the child and remove the bullet, Obama said, but the scar remained.

He used the "scar" analogy throughout his speech. The Los Angeles riots were a "scar" on society, showing us that poverty still exists. Hurricane Katrina and the federal government's response was another "scar," according to Obama. All this talk of scars left me convinced, more than ever, that Obama's "innocuous to average white ears" speech was nothing more than a rip-off of a Malcolm X quote from decades ago.

It's in Malcolm X's autobiography, a book I've criticized for being light on the bio and way too heavy on the auto. But in it, Malcolm criticized those whites -- and blacks -- who were always quick to point out some progress in race relations that Malcolm felt wasn't really progress at all.

"If you have a knife in a man's back," Malcolm said, "it isn't progress if you take the knife out a couple of inches. Even if you take the knife all the way out, it's still going to leave a scar." So Obama's "scar" theme wasn't even original. And, at the conclusion of it, he tried to claim a history that isn't his.

"Black folks won't forget. We won't forget what happened 19 months ago, 15 years ago or 300 years ago."

Did Obama have any black ancestors in this country 300 years ago?

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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