Will Obama's Speech on Race Settle Controversy?

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is urging the nation to break the racial stalemate he says the country has been stuck in for years. Tuesday's speech in Philadelphia was Obama's most prominent airing of racial issues of his campaign and follows attention focused on explosive statements by his long-time pastor and mentor.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Senator Barack Obama delivered a wide-ranging speech on race yesterday, a speech in which he said the American people have a choice.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race, only as spectacle, as we did in the OJ trial, or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina, or as fodder for the nightly news.

MONTAGNE: That, said Obama, is one option.

Sen. OBAMA: Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say not this time.

MONTAGNE: Barack Obama's address came in the midst of controversy over inflammatory remarks made by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, Senator Obama once again condemned the remarks made by Reverend Wright, but he also said he could no more disown him than Obama could disown his own white grandmother, a woman, he said, who loves him as much she loves anything in the world or anyone in the world, but who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her on the street. Will this comparison and this explanation settle the controversy, more particularly, satisfy his critics?

WILLIAMS: You know, that's the problematic heart of this speech, Renee. The question is why Senator Obama maintained a relationship with Reverend Wright, a man who has said things like, you know, the government is pumping drugs into the black community or spreading AIDS among people of color, has said that America's foreign policy is somehow equal to that of the terrorists who attacked on 9/11. The idea, Renee, that his grandmother expressing concern about black as you just said is quite different than Reverend Wright's statements. Obama said yesterday those were divisive, hateful statements. And somehow, Barack Obama tried to make them parallel in scope.

MONTAGNE: He spoke about the country's history of racial division. He acknowledged anger and resentment among both blacks and whites. For those who aren't critics but caught up in the controversy, how was this speech received?

WILLIAMS: Well, here is the key. There are several audiences, Renee. You have what I would term Reagan Democrats, white voters, many of them middle income working class people who found - had found Obama inspiring, and, you know, the idea is that they could invest in him their ideals, trying to get beyond the racial static in this country and the history of racism. But they may have found Reverend Wright's views threatening enough to make them wonder about Obama. Was he the racial conciliator, or was he the angry black politician? But at the same time Senator Obama yesterday was speaking to the black community, Renee. And he was making it clear that he was not going to turn away from Reverend Wright, not turn away from the black church or the black community, because that would have punctured the base of his political support right now. So he was speaking to several audiences.

MONTAGNE: So, a challenging moment for Senator Obama.

WILLIAMS: Oh, boy, was it. I mean, it's a challenging moment. And in so many ways, you know, Senator Obama lived up to the challenge because it was quite a speech. But Obama's identity is central to the story, bi-racial, went to the best schools in the country, is a personification of modern America. But suddenly, he finds himself back in the fights of the '50s and the '60s, Renee. He joined that church because some said he wasn't black enough. Now he feels that he has become the black candidate in the race, and that's not what he wanted.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much. NPR news analyst, Juan Williams.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Obama Speech Addresses Racial Divide

Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech

Barack Obama i i

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) called for unity during a major address on race and politics at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday. Thomas Cain/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) called for unity during a major address on race and politics at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) was in Philadelphia on Tuesday, within footsteps of the city's historic Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, to give what his advisers described as a major address on "race, politics and unifying our country."

As a presidential candidate who preaches unity, Obama faced the challenge of explaining the divisive remarks of his longtime pastor from Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In recent days, these remarks have been a fixture on the cable news networks and in the political blogosphere.

The speech was not a usual Obama event. The crowd was small, just a few hundred people. Obama came in with little fanfare and stood at a bare wooden podium. He talked first about some of the progress that he feels he has made in the campaign so far.

"Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African-Americans and white Americans," he said.

In truth, Obama attracted different coalitions from state to state. But in places such as South Carolina, Ohio and Georgia, he has struggled to appeal to whites.

There always seems to be a risk of racial divide in the Democratic campaign. But the risk never seemed as high as during the past week, when sermons given by the Rev. Wright began showing up on cable news. They were sound bites in which Wright railed against white America. On Tuesday, Obama said his pastor was expressing a "profoundly distorted view" of the United States.

"As such, Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together," he said.

Obama's Relationship with Rev. Wright

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama said about Wright, who officiated at his wedding and who baptized his two daugthers. "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."

He went on to say that whites, like his grandmother, have reason to be angry, too.

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that 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," he said.

Obama then brought his speech back to Wright. He said that if his pastor is right about one thing — that racism is endemic to America — then his candidacy loses its foundation.

"The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static," he said.

Reaction to the Speech

The invited audience members were mostly Obama supporters, many of them religious leaders who have been paying close attention as Rev. Wright's sermons have made headlines. The Rev. Ellis Washington, pastor at St. Matthew AME Church in Philadelphia, said he has been known to give some Wright-style sermons.

"Maybe not the same language, but to speak on contemporary problems, on social issues, to speak to, especially, an African-American community, that puts it into context with our experience in terms of racism and prejudice and those kinds of things. It happens all the time. It may not happen in every sermon, but it is part of my ministry and many people I know," Washington said.

Washington said Obama clearly worked hard to find a balance during Tuesday's speech.

"He didn't try to skirt the issue and really spoke to us about race from a very honest and transparent place," he said.

Washington said he feared that the headlines about Obama's speech could miss the nuance of his message. Those headlines were already moving across a big news ticker on a building across the street from where Obama spoke. Rabbi Michael Bernstein saw the headline as soon as he came out of the speech.

"I have to say, I was looking across the window to where the ticker is and already it says, 'Obama disavows pastor, but refuses to disown him,' and I'm afraid people will get that message; he only went halfway," he said.

Obama had no easy task, Bernstein said, digging into his pastor's racially charged remarks to find some uplifting lesson. "It's a risk. It's the kind-of risk that has kept other people from doing the same kind of thing and has dragged our conversation down," he added.

As a voter, Bernstein said he has no idea whether he will support Obama. He simply said he appreciated the candidate's message on this day.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.