This paper evaluates President Barack Obama’s campaign speech at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008. The full text, and a recording, of the speech can be found on the website American Rhetoric.
Thirteen years after he spoke them to a crowd in Philadelphia, then-candidate Barack Obama’s powerful words from his A More Perfect Union speech couldn’t be more applicable to our lives. On the day when a white police officer was sentenced to more than 20 years in jail for kneeling on a black man’s neck and slowly suffocating him, reading Obama’s speech on racism in this country seems very appropriate. Amid protests and calls for community, Obama’s words ring just as true today as they did on that mid-March day in 2008. Racism is just as much a part of our culture today as it has always been, but the ideals our country was founded on require us to do the hard work necessary to reckon with our original sin and find ways to move toward “a more perfect union.” (1)
As a black man working to achieve the most highly visible, critically important job on the planet, Barack Obama offers his own life experience as proof of his innate understanding of the topic he is discussing. Obama outlines his own childhood – where he was raised by a white mother, black father, and white maternal grandparents – as an example of the challenges faced by black children. He also offers his campaign for President of the United States of America, a campaign he is engaged in while giving this speech, as an example of how a black American faces different challenges than a white American running for the same office. These examples cement his credibility, or ethos, to speak to racial issues in America.
Obama outlines the statements made by his former minister, Reverend Wright, which “… caused such controversy, and in some cases, pain.” (1) He explains the viewpoint where the Reverend’s words came from while simultaneously making it clear that he sees a different path forward for the country. Acknowledging that some in his audience may not understand the source this frustration and anger, Obama notes that “… a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they’ve been particularly privileged by their race.” (1) These statements show that Obama is aware the feelings being discussed exist in a wide variety of people within our country and are not unique to black Americans. This appeal to pathos makes it clear that we’re more similar than we realize that our feelings and experiences are shared by our fellow Americans and not unique to our own demographic group.
While the audience was primarily made up of Obama’s supporters and the news media, he knew that he was speaking to the entire American public. “We want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native-American children. … we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care.” (1) The speech lays out examples where our nation has faltered in its past, but eventually realized its error and worked to fix its problems. “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” (1) The story of America, claims Obama, is one of constant drive to improve. Throughout the speech there are examples of ways in which Americans have worked to improve our interaction with each other and provide equal opportunities for everyone. Obama recognizes this in the very fact that he is able to run for the office of President. “I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.” (1) It would be easy to conclude that, given the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States over the last 18 months, Obama’s speech was not effective. That conclusion would be wrong. The point of Obama’s speech wasn’t to try and solve centuries of injustice in one oratory masterpiece. Instead, it was to remind us that we are capable of doing the work that is necessary to accept our past and change our future. While Obama did not condone violence in his speech, he did speak of getting to know each other better. “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together” (1) In that way, it could be said that Obama’s speech and many others like it empowered us to have the protests we’ve seen in our country recently. If we keep working together to live out the ideals that this country was founded on, maybe racism will stop being the unspoken key to our culture. We must “… continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America.” (1)
Obama, Barack H. “A More Perfect Union.” March 18, 2008, Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Campaign Address.