It's surprisingly even-handed. After duly noting that out-and-out-racism characterized the social systems established by European colonial powers in various parts of Africa, he expands his scope to acknowledge the universality of the human urge to confer inferior status on others. The five sentences he devotes to the subject sound like they could have come from any number of Thomas Sowell essays:
Such a view of the world—that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest—that view of the world was hardly confined to relations between Europe and Africa, or relations between whites and blacks. Whites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And, by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks. Around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives. Often they were subject to the whims and cruelties of distant leaders. The average person saw no possibility of advancing from the circumstances of their birth. Women were almost uniformly subordinate to men. Privilege and status was rigidly bound by caste and color and ethnicity and religion.
Yes, he immediately follows that up with an assertion of how that impulse has played itself out in the United States - something he's always relished pointing out - and he then devotes a significant portion of his speech to inequality. He does conclude, however, on an innocuous note, applauding the work of NGOs that are making a one-on-one difference in the lives of impoverished people, and exhorting us all to look around and see who is in need and act to help them.
And at one point he drives home the above observation (about how whites and blacks have each done their share of conquering and exporting) even more incisively, admonishing those who would say that "privilege" automatically excludes certain groups from certain conversations:
. . . democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you—because they’re white, or because they’re male—that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.
So far today, I've run across two takes on his speech, each on the right side of the spectrum and each from minds I admire a great deal, that, by their opposite positions, stake out a spectrum of their own.
One is from Kat Timpf at NRO, who points out the inarguable - that Obama is quite right to refute identity-politics exclusions. The other is from Peter Heck at The Resurgent, who says, quite rightly, that this kind of talk from the police-who-arrested-Henry-Louis-Gates-acted-stupidly / if-I-had-a-son-he'd-look-like-Trayvon proselytizer-in-chief is rich indeed.
My own view is that it's of a piece with his general tendency to finger-wag. He's also fairly sharp in this respect. He knows that mentioning the universality of the impulse to confer inferiority, and going, even if pretty gently, against the grain regarding identity politics, he gives himself room to wax emphatically on matters dear to his leftist heart. As I say, he's sharp. He says that it's important to hear out and converse with those who argue that a move toward "sustainable" energy is too costly, but that positing that the global climate is not in any kind of trouble is beyond the pale. He knows just where he wants to draw the line and legitimize exclusion.
Taken in sum, Obama's speech is emblematic of the style that catapulted him from community organizer to president in the space of a little over a decade: collectivism delivered with a calm, glib demeanor. He learned the lessons of the Midwest Academy well. Push for radical social change, but do so in an inviting manner that keeps any threatening overtones to a minimum.
Reacting to this speech is an opportunity for conservatives to do something we have to do a lot these days: hold up two disparate things simultaneously and acknowledge the truth of both. Obama's points about the universality of the human urge to oppress and the dead-end nature of identity-politics exclusion are spot-on, and he made them in the service of the point he really wanted to make, which is that, in his worldview, certain demographics in this world keep others under their thumb.
It doesn't have to be a fabulous speech that spurs us to reconsider our overall assessment of Barack Obama, and neither does it have to be the most cynical utterance we've ever heard. To take one of these positions or the other is to default to tribalism mode and excuse ourselves from allowing nuance into our thinking.
The words were right, and the speaker said them for self-serving purposes.
That happens a lot, actually.