Sen. Obama urges Americans to examine racial divisions

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 (Ill.), in a speech given amid an increasing focus on race in the Democratic primary battle, did not dismiss his former pastor but instead sought to mobilize Americans to address deep-seated racial tensions.

Speaking in Philadelphia, Obama again condemned the Rev. Jeremiah Wright publicly for controversial remarks that have dominated the news cycle for the past week. But Obama, in a far-reaching speech that lasted nearly 40 minutes, urged the nation to look deeper at Wright’s words, along with everyday insensitive remarks about race and ethnicity, to better understand what is driving the divisions in America. To ignore those sentiments is to miss an opportunity, Obama said.

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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 and others have criticized Obama for not speaking out earlier against Wright, who, while he was the head of a largely black congregation in Chicago, once said, “God damn America” for treating its citizens as “less than human.”

Shortly after video of Wright surfaced last week, Obama rejected his pastor’s remarks. On Tuesday, he again called them wrong, divisive and representative of a distorted view. But Obama chose not to distance himself completely from Wright, saying people are more complex than a few moments. Drawing on his own personal conflict, Obama — the son of a white mother and black father — compared Wright’s words with the prejudices rooted in black America, white America and even his own family.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said. “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.”

He went on to acknowledge anger due to race 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, Obama said, “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.”

Obama stood at a podium with American flags behind him and a subdued audience in front. He spoke in a tone more reserved than the one he employs on the stump. At one point, he quoted Southern novelist William Faulkner, saying: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

In a comment aimed squarely at the pundits, Obama said that resentments over race have shaped politics for at least a generation and that in this current campaign, “Commentators have deemed me either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough.’”

“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. He even offered an olive branch of sorts to the latest casualty in rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (N.Y.) campaign.

“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.”

Immediately after the speech, pundits were dissecting his remarks on blogs and cable news talk shows.

Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama’s most ardent supporters, said that Americans for a generation have waited for this speech. “Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history,” he wrote on his blog.

But Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC that the speech was “grating” in its emphasis on the role of society in race relations. He said Obama would have done better to focus on what individuals could do.

And Michael Goldfarb, an editor at the Weekly Standard, said that Obama erred by focusing on the past, something he had avoided doing until Tuesday.

“This election was no different than any other, and it turns out that Barack Obama is really no different than any other conventional liberal candidate for the presidency,” Goldfarb wrote on his magazine’s website. “He blames America, racism and the past for the problems of today.”

Obama may have been trying to reach people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But with his own lead narrowing and Clinton gaining momentum, he clearly needed to reach Democrats. At least one Democratic strategist, Jamal Simmons, felt that objective was met.

Simmons called the speech “transcendent” for putting the controversy over Wright into the context of people’s everyday lives.

“His message to them was, ‘I get it, I understand and I’m going to work to make lives better, but there’s no reason to fight each other,’ ” said Simmons, who is supporting Obama.