PHILADELPHIA – Sen. Barack Obama delivered a blunt and deeply personal speech here Tuesday about racial division in America as he sought to quell a political controversy stirred by his former Chicago pastor that threatens to engulf his presidential candidacy.
The 37-minute speech was Obama’s most developed response to the storm of criticism that erupted over angry and racially charged sermons that included denunciations of the United States delivered by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., Obama’s spiritual mentor and until recently pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. It was a topic he had long considered addressing directly as the first black with a serious chance of becoming president, but one that took on a sense of urgency because of Wright’s words.
Obama, of Illinois, sought to distance himself from the specifics of Wright’s sermons in the speech, saying they offered “a profoundly distorted view of this country.” But he used the controversy to speak directly to the grievances and resentments on both sides of the racial divide and to urge all Americans to “move beyond our old racial wounds.”
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” Obama told an audience of ministers and community leaders assembled at the National Constitution Center. “We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”
Noting that the politically safe course might be to hope the current controversy will fade away, Obama said: “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together.”
The speech drew praise for its forthright expression of black-white divisions and its call to all Americans to begin to reconcile those differences. Whether it will solve the potentially serious political problems that Wright’s longstanding relationship with Obama has created is a far different question and one upon which political strategists disagreed on Tuesday in the wake of the address.
Obama’s comments came after two weeks during which racial issues had again come to forefront of the Democratic presidential race. His loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, in the Ohio primary two weeks ago and the voting patterns among some whites raised questions about whether racial factors had contributed to the New York senator’s victory.
Soon after, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro severed her relationship with Clinton’s campaign after her comments about Obama’s success in the campaign being attributable to the fact that he is black were interpreted as racially demeaning.
Then came the wide circulation of excerpts of Wright’s sermons.
Obama said that many Americans have disagreed strongly with remarks they’ve heard their own religious leaders deliver from the pulpit. He acknowledged, without elaborating, that he had heard Wright say things “that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church.” He has denied a published report that he was present for a July 22 service in which Wright condemned “the United States of White America” in a sermon filled with expletives.
Obama was harsh Tuesday in his criticism of what his former pastor has said, but he refused to walk away from a man who had brought him to Christianity, performed his marriage and baptized his children. He spoke from a biracial perspective as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother.
“Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive,” he said, “divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”
Obama acknowledged he had heard his pastor say controversial things with which he disagreed, but he also said that in personal conversations he never heard Wright speak in a derogatory way about any ethnic group. And the senator described his congregation as typical of black churches in embodying “the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.”
Of Wright, he said: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me … but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
Obama said the same kind of anger that exists within the black community also exists “within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.” Many, he said, work hard to make ends meet, only to see their children bused to school across town or lose a job or a space in a coveted school to a black who is given advantages because of past discrimination.
“To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding,” he said. “This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.”
Both whites and blacks, Obama said, must recognize “what ails” the other – and embrace, as he said Wright has not, the idea that America can change. “This union may never be perfect,” he said. “But generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who competed against Obama in the Democratic race, praised the speech as a powerful statement about race relations. “He told the story of America – both the good and the bad – and I believe his speech will come to represent an important step forward in race relations in our country,” Biden said in a statement.
But one Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to offer a candid assessment, said the political problem facing Obama “is deeper than a speech.”
Obama and his advisers were nervous even after the speech, conceding that they had no idea how it would be received either by uncommitted superdelegates, who are looking for Obama to show mettle and leadership under fire, or by voters in upcoming primary states, including Pennsylvania, which will hold the next contest on April 22.
Clinton, who also appeared in Philadelphia Tuesday morning for an Iraq-focused event that featured former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, said she had not read the speech but added: “I’m very glad he gave it.”
“Issues of race and gender in America have been complicated throughout our history, and they are complicated in this primary campaign,” Clinton said during her appearance at City Hall. “There have been detours and pitfalls along the way, but we should remember that this is an historic moment for the Democratic Party and for our country. We will be nominating the first African-American or woman for the presidency of the United States, and that is something that all Americans can and should celebrate.”