Race in the Barack Obama Inaugural Address

Obama Brings Power to Subtle Race References

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I was struck but not surprised by Barack Obama's use of race in his inaugural address: With one critical exception, his references could have come as easily from the 44th white president as from the first black president. But because he was the latter, they had special power.

Obama spoke of the "God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." He referred to those "who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom" as having "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth." And he spoke of our having "tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united."

Only Obama, of course, could deliver this line:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed—why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Obama ran as a presidential candidate who was African-American rather than an African-American presidential candidate, so it is no surprise that he did not focus on race in the speech. And he did not need to: His inherent symbolism imbues words that anyone could have spoken with extra significance.