PHILADELPHIA, March 18, 2008 — -- Distancing himself from the inflammatory remarks made by his longtime pastor, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today attempted to move beyond the racially charged tone that has dominated the presidential campaign for the last week with a renewed call to focus on "problems that confront us all."
Without question, the Illinois Democrat found himself speaking about race in the city of brotherly love because some rather unloving comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were publicized.
Today, Obama called Wright's statements "divisive," "racially charged" and "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation."
In a 2003 sermon that has seen much media play this last week, Wright said, "The government gives them drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants to sing 'God Bless America. No, no, no, not 'God Bless America' -- 'God Damn America.'"
That clip and others like it led Obama to distance himself from his longtime spiritual adviser and late last week Wright left the campaign's African American Religious Leadership Committee.
Still, Obama sought to explain his spiritual history with Wright. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me."
Comparing Wright to his maternal grandmother, he 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," Obama said. "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 part of me," Obama said, "and they are part of America, this country that I love."
Obama's decision to give a speech on race was born last Friday in light of questions about how Wright's inflammatory rhetoric squares with Obama's message of uniting the country, as well as racially charged comments made by the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., most notably those by former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.
"We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demoagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias," Obama 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."Obama also framed Wright's remarks in a historical perspective citing "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through" saying that "understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point."
Citing segregation, legalized discrimination, a lack of economic opportunities for black men, and the lack of basic service in so many urban black neighborhoods, Obama said "This is the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African-Americans of this generation grew up. "
"For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings. And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews."
Obama described the anger as "not always productive" but "real" and "powerful" with roots embedded in a "chasm of misunderstanding".
Nodding to the expression by Ferraro last week that Obama wouldn't be where he is if he were white, Obama also took on grievances of "working- and middle-class white Americans (who) don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race."
"They worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; ...when they hear an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
"Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation."
Obama called on both groups to move beyond their anger and grievances to work together.
Moving from Wright to his Democratic and Republican rivals, Obama said "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election...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. "With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, Obama sees himself as uniquely able to deliver this call for the nation to move forward together.
Today he said his background "hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one."
That very postracial appeal is at risk with Obama's 20-year relationship with Wright, a man who says among other things, the U.S. government created AIDS to kill black Americans.
It will be quite the high-wire act for Obama to address Wright's anger without seeming to justify it, while taking on the most sensitive subject in American discourse.
Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, says the challenge that faces Obama is considerable.
"We've never really had a proper discussion about race and racism in this society so when comments come about as they have throughout this campaign we really don't know how to act," Boyd said. "We really don't know what to do with them. Whatever Obama has to say about race at some level he might as well be speaking to the wall because it's not going to make any difference in a society where people don't know the ins and outs and outs and ins about talking about a very volatile issue."
The more pressing questions for Obama, of course, may be the political ones.
Why wasn't this issue dealt with until now? What else do voters not know about Obama? And how does his pledge to unite the country square with his attendance at a church where those of his mother's hue might not feel comfortable?
ABC News' Susan Rucci contributed to this report.