Exclusive: Obama on Reverend, Race and When He Was Ashamed For His Own Community

Obama tells ABC News that portrayal of Rev. Wright has been "a caricature."

March 18, 2008— -- After making what many political analysts are calling the most important speech of his political career, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., sat down for an exclusive interview with "Nightline's" Terry Moran to further discuss the delicate issue of race in America. Obama explained to ABC News why this was the right moment for him to give such a politically risky speech.

"You could see race bubbling up in a way that was distracting from the issues that I think are so important to America right now," said Obama. "So what I wanted to do was to, rather than try to tamp it down, lift it up and see if maybe that would help clarify where we are as a nation right now on the issues."

Over the past few weeks, the issue of race exploded in Obama's and Sen. Hillary Clinton's, D-N.Y., presidential campaigns when supporters from both campaigns made controversial race-based remarks.

Long-time Clinton ally Geraldine Ferrarro stepped down from her position on the senator's finance committee, after making what some perceived as racially divisive remarks about Obama's candidacy. . In an interview with the California "Daily Breeze," she said that Obama would not ' be in this position,' if he was not black. While Obama denounces Ferraro's comments, he doesn't believe it is simply a matter of racism.

"You think about the experience of whites in a place like Boston or Scranton, Pennsylvania," he said, "where, at time of economic stress and difficulty, suddenly blacks are moving in and kids are being bused, and there's some sense that the economic competition is being tilted unfairly because of affirmative action. You think about her generation and her background, coming from a neighborhood in New York that went through some of those same things. And I'm sure that that is part of what's in her mind. And it's a mistake then to simply tag it as racist. It's not-- that's not what's going on."

Not only was Clinton drawn into the race spotlight this week by Ferraro's comments, but Sen. Obama was this week after his pastor, friend and mentor, Jeremiah Wright was found to have made sharp, disparaging comments about race relations in America.

In tapes of past sermons released after his retirement, Wright called America the "U.S. of K-K-K" and accused the federal government of creating the HIV virus to infect blacks.

Throughout the week, Obama appeared on various news channels, distancing himself from the comments he admitted were offensive, but the criticism didn't stop. In an attempt to quell the firestorm of criticism, today in Philadelphia the senator from Illinois delivered a speech on race in America.

"What I wanted to do was provide context for not just the controversy that's swirled around my former pastor," said Obama, "but for a shift in tone that we've been seeing in the campaign, both in the coverage and the comments of both my supporters, and Sen. Clinton's."

'A Big Leap' for America

Obama admits that, given his historic candidacy, the issue of race was bound to become more prominent. "I expected that at some stage we'd have to give it," he said, of the speech he made this week. "[It] was unrealistic to anticipate that, during the course of this campaign, if not now then certainly in the general election, that this was not going to be an issue that had to be addressed."

While he admits the historic nature of his candidacy is important, he doesn't want his race to be the focus of his campaign.

"This is a big leap for the country [and] what I want to do is to make sure that we understand that my campaign is not premised on that, it's not premised on making history, but that, whoever is president, this is always going to be an ongoing issue that we have to struggle with and that, perhaps, I can lend some special insight into it."

After the Mississippi primary, in which Obama won 92 percent of the black vote and just 26 percent of the white vote, some political analysts perceived today's speech, where he highlighted race in America, as a make-or-break moment for his candidacy.

Obama disagrees. "If you just look at the mathematics and the popular vote of the campaign, we're in a good place," he said. "But one of the things that I've always believed is that this campaign couldn't just be about me, my ambitions, winning a nomination. The process itself had to reflect the changes I say I'm going to bring about when I'm president."

Obama believes giving a speech on race was necessary but concedes that it is a politically risky move. By embracing race and bringing it out in the open, he admits that he could be perceived as "the race candidate."

"Absolutely," he said. "And so, hopefully this is something that we have talked about, we've lifted up, it will spur discussion, like Robert Kennedy's wonderful metaphor, "ripples of hope." You know, you throw a rock into a pond and those ripples will go out. We don't know where those ripples will go. I have no idea how this plays out politically. But I think it was important to do."

Reverend Was 'Not Condemning the White Race'

Obama's message of unity and bridging the racial divide was interrupted last week, when controversial footage of his former pastor, Wright, traveled from the pulpit to the airwaves. One of the clips included the reverend blaming America for the attacks of September 11, leading some voters to question Obama's judgment.

"Well, as I said in the speech, this is somebody who'd preached for 30 years, probably three times on a Sunday and multiple times during the week, so we can do the math, but there are a lot of seconds there of talking. And essentially what's been created is a montage of some very offensive and disturbing language. And I don't excuse it at all; I've condemned it unequivocally."

Obama believes that the controversial video of Wright, which has angered many, is not representative of the preacher himself. "[It] was a caricature," he said. "For all his good qualities [Rev. Wright] is somebody that I've had strong disagreements with for a very long time, but he's somebody who helped to introduce me to my Christian faith. He is somebody who married Michelle and I. He baptized our kids."

"And my point, I think, was that you don't disown certainly the church, but you don't even disown a man simply because he says something that you profoundly and deeply disagree with. What I can do is condemn the words, but not condemn the man."

O.J. Simpson and 'Unproductive Anger'

Obama points to the trial of O.J. Simpson to exemplify past divisions between blacks and whites.

"During the O.J. trial, there was a similar moment when the culture — you know, black and white culture — just had these completely opposite reactions and nobody understood it," he said, admitting his belief that Simpson was guilty.

"And I was ashamed for my own community to respond in that way, but I also understood what was taking place, which was that reaction had more to do with a sense that somehow the criminal justice system historically had been biased so profoundly that a defeat of that justice system was somehow a victory.

"Now, that is an example of how unproductive that anger is and how we have to get beyond it, but it's there. And so, that's why I said during the speech, in some ways for me to completely disown Reverend Wright is for me to disown the African-American community, because he embodies all the contradictions."

Black and White: 'I've Got a Foot in Each Camp'

For Obama, his speech was an opportunity to say out loud, in public, what Americans say in private within their different groups.

"And hopefully," he said, "I accurately captured not just what blacks say privately, but of what whites say privately ... One strength I do have is that I've got a foot in each camp, right? You know, since I'm half-white and was raised by a white mom and white grandparents, I have a little more insight into those white resentments, again that are also rooted in history, and some of which are legitimate."

Obama said he considers himself an American first, rather than primarily a black man. He also doesn't distinguish between black patriotism and white patriotism, but he does see a difference in how each group has experienced America.

"What I think is that the African-American community is much more familiar with some of the darker aspects of American life and American history, and so the African-American community can express great rage and anger about this country and love it all the same, in a way that probably is less familiar to white America."

While he believes blacks may be more familiar with the darker aspects of American history, he says it is not an excuse to express anti-American sentiments, either.

"It doesn't excuse it, it just describes a reality," Obama said. I think it is very important — for white America to understand that this anger is not based on nothing. The anger is based on slavery and Jim Crow and a history that continues to have powerful sway over our daily lives.

"And I know that one of the most difficult things about race in this country is that white America is much more likely to say, 'That was in the past, so forget about it. Let it go.'" And black America is saying, "The violence that was committed then under Jim Crow now expresses itself or is tied to the street crime that I'm having to deal with in my neighborhood or in my own family. I mean, those connections are made in the black community.

"And so, part of what we have to do is, on the one hand, the African-American community has to say to itself that we can affirm and acknowledge that tragic history, but not be trapped by it, not be obsessed by it, not use this as an excuse or a crutch for our responsibilities in moving ourselves forward as a community."

Obama believes his candidacy can spark an open, honest dialogue about race in America. He believes he might be able to help change the racial dialogue, or lack thereof, and the way America deals with race.

"I've never been so naive as to think that one election cycle or, as I put it, my candidacy, as imperfect as it is, could somehow change entirely 300 years of history," he said.

"I think, instead, this campaign offers an opportunity for America to think about some of these issues and engage them in a more honest way. But that's just one of the opportunities."