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