Obama tackles race in highly anticipated speech

Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer White House physician Ronny Jackson to run for Congress Obama issues statement praising Paul Volcker Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE (D-Ill.), in a speech given amid an increasing focus on race in the Democratic primary battle and concerns about his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, did not dismiss his former pastor but instead sought to mobilize Americans to address deep-seated racial tensions.

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“We can play Rev. Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words,” Obama said. “We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

“We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change,” the senator stated. “That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ ”

In the past week, conservative pundits have criticized Obama for not speaking out earlier against Wright, who once said “God damn[s] America” for treating its citizens as “less than human” and who once blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on previous actions by the United States.

Obama, speaking in Philadelphia, Pa., again condemned Wright’s statements, calling them wrong, divisive and representative of a distorted view. But he also said that Wright and others who held racial stereotypes could not be dismissed.

“He contains within him the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served diligently for so many years,” Obama said. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

“These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love,” Obama stated.

{mospagebreak}He went on to acknowledge anger among both blacks and middle-class whites, and called on all Americans to “continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

“For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past,” he said. For those in the white community, “the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination, and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past, are real and must be addressed.”

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Obama, standing at a podium with American flags behind him and a subdued audience in front of him, spoke in a tone more reserved than the one he uses on the stump. At times, he quoted Southern novelist William Faulkner, Wright and his own book about his struggle with racial identity, Dreams from My Father.

In a thinly veiled shot at critics, he said that resentments over race have shaped politics for at least a generation.

“Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends,” he said. “Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.”

He added that the politically safe move would be to hope that the issue of race would fade.

“We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias,” he said. “But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”