Obama Parses Wright & Wrong in Race Speech

Obama uses pastor's remarks to talk about nation's history of racial grievances.


PHILADELPHIA, March 18, 2008 — -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today further condemned inflammatory remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor, while acknowledging he had heard some of the "controversial" remarks while sitting in the pews of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

But in an attempt to move beyond the controversy -- which has threatened to scuff the postracial unifying sheen of his campaign's promise -- Obama used Wright's anger as a way to explain racial grievances of both white and black Americans to focus on "problems that confront us all" and move beyond "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

"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," Obama said, reading a speech he'd worked on largely by himself and been writing until early this morning. (Senior Adviser David Axelrod and Chief Speechwriter Jon Favreau worked on the speech as well.)

Ferraro, a former vice presidential nominee, was quoted last week saying Obama wouldn't be where he is were he white.

Obama today described her assertions as "the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wild and wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap."

"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 said, to an auditorium packed with invited guests and the media at the National Constitution Center. The small forum for the speech was intentional, the campaign did not want this speech to have the rah-rah feel of a rally.

Without question, the Illinois Democrat found himself speaking about race in the city of brotherly love because some rather unloving comments made by Wright have been publicized. In a 2003 sermon that has seen much media play in the last week, for instance, 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.

Today, Obama called Wright's statements "divisive," "racially charged" and "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation." But Obama sought to explain his spiritual history with Wright, a man he described as an achiever of good deeds.

"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said, saying that Wright embodied all that is good and bad about the black church community in general, which "contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America."

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, acknowledging that she was also "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, reading the speech off a teleprompter in the small auditorium, "and they are part of America, this country that I love."

The set-up may have worked well on TV, though gave an odd feel inside the auditorium since he was often looking at the walls in the narrow room.

The candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, sat in the front row during the speech. She was very emotional and could be seen crying backstage after the speech was over, given the subject matter of her husband's oratory.

The theme of both black and white racial grievances was one to which Obama kept returning; he had been determined to deliver a speech about race from the beginning of the campaign. It was the confluence of last week's Ferraro and Wright stories -- after he'd been peppered with questions on the Friday night cable rounds about how the pastor's inflammatory rhetoric squared with his message of unification -- that he told senior aides, "I'm going to give the speech."

Obama sought to explain Wright's anger, putting his comments in a historical perspective and citing "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through" and saying that "understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point."

Citing segregation, legalized discrimination and a dearth of economic opportunities for black men, Obama said, "For the men and women of Rev. 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 he 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," Obama said. "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," Obama said. "But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation."

He called on both groups to move beyond their anger and grievances to work together.

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 man, 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.

Moving from Wright to his Democratic and Republican rivals and the media, Obama said, "We can play Rev. 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[GOP presidential nominee] 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. "

It was 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 will voters receive his pledge to unite the country given his attendance at a church where those of his mother's hue might not feel comfortable?

Amid much keen thought and fine oratory, those questions, today, went unanswered.

ABC News' Susan Rucci and Nitya Venkatamaran contributed to this report.

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