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Analysis: Obama grabs race issue

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080318/ap_on_el_pr/obama_race_matters;_ylt=Ag67g_i_9gG8h88ipbkw3lVh24cA Analysis: Obama grabs race issue By CHARLES BABINGTON,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 18, 2008

      Analysis: Obama grabs race issue

      By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer Tue Mar
      18, 4:00 PM ET

      WASHINGTON - "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

      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

      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."


      EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Babington covers national
      politics for The Associated Press.
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