“Race doesn’t matter,” the crowd chanted after Sen. Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary, made possible by heavy black support and a solid showing among white voters.
But in the seven weeks since, race has mattered more and more in his presidential struggle against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, threatening to dent his lead. On Tuesday, Obama addressed it head-on in a speech that bluntly described a history of injustice to blacks, acknowledged the resentments of whites, and ended with the hope that his campaign can help heal racial divisions.
Like any full-blown discussion of the sensitive topic, Obama’s speech carries risks. Some whites may feel he did not do enough to distance himself from a fiery Chicago preacher who has depicted the United States as a racist society. The speech also could unleash wider discussions of race in the campaign rather than reduce its role as a “distraction” from more important issues, a term Obama used several times.
But a recent series of unsettling events convinced the Illinois senator that a full-bore address was needed, and now. They include a trend of white Democrats voting more heavily for Clinton while blacks vote overwhelmingly for him; the resignation of a major Clinton supporter who made racially contentious remarks; and, above all, intense media focus on the most inflammatory statements of Obama’s longtime minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Just six days ago, Obama suggested that overt discussions of race were a frustration and unwelcome diversion in his campaign. “We keep on thinking we’ve dispelled this,” he said, speaking of the notion that he relies too heavily on black support.
On Tuesday in Philadelphia, however, he said discussions of race have “taken a particularly divisive turn” recently, and it was time for a bold and frank airing.
“The comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks,” he said, “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through.”
Obama, the son of a white mother and black father, then addressed both racial communities in turn. He urged blacks to embrace “the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”
“It means taking full responsibility for own lives,” he said, “by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children.”
He called on whites to stop denying the prevalence and continuing harm of racism. He said whites should acknowledge “that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people.” The legacy of discrimination, he said, “and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past, are real and must be addressed,” in part by building better schools and other facilities in black neighborhoods.
At the same time, Obama said whites are partly justified in fearing that good jobs or college slots, which they qualify for, might go to blacks under programs giving minorities “an advantage.”
“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,” he said.
Rarely has a black politician directed such remarks to a national audience. They come as one of Obama’s key assets — his image as a biracial candidate who can bridge cultural differences and largely transcend race — threatens to become a liability. Comments from Clinton supporters and others have fueled discussions of race lately, and some white voters in Ohio and elsewhere seem to be turning against Obama partly because of his race, according to exit polls.
In the speech, Obama seemed eager to regain control of the debate and his image. He addressed all races and communities in calm but lightly admonishing tones, and tried to steer the conversation back to his chief themes of hope, unity and progress.
Some Democratic activists think he largely succeeded.
“No other person in this country, black or white, could have given a speech like that,” said Stephanie Cutter, who was John Kerry’s spokeswoman in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Perhaps the trickiest part of Obama’s 37-minute speech dealt with Wright, his longtime friend and recently retired pastor. Wright has said, among other things, “God damn America” for its racism and “for killing innocent people.”
Obama sharply condemned such remarks Tuesday. But he defended Wright’s overall ministry, and tried to put it in context for uncomprehending whites.
He said Wright has expressed views “that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.” Wright’s comments “weren’t simply controversial,” he said. “They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country, a view that sees white racism as endemic” and unabating.
But Wright “has been like family to me,” Obama said. The minister knows all too well a “legacy of defeat” among many blacks, stemming from the days of Jim Crow and de facto segregation, he said.
The legacy “was passed on to future generations those young men and increasingly young women, who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons,” Obama said. For those in Wright’s generation, he said, “the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.”
“And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning,” he said, even though “many people are surprised to hear that anger” from a pulpit.
Most of the speech was fairly high-minded, with few if any overt appeals for votes. Obama doubtlessly raised eyebrows in many circles, however, with a populist pivot that named a new villain in the racial divide.
“Black anger” and “white resentments,” he said, have “distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze: a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed.”
Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.