Election 2008

Pa. Voters Reflect on Obama's Race Speech

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Peter Eartano

At breakfast at George's Family Restaurant, Peter Eartano, standing, says he was impressed by Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech on race Tuesday. Thomas Pierce, NPR hide caption

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At George's Family Restaurant in Aliquippa, Pa.

At George's Family Restaurant in Aliquippa, Pa., residents discussed Obama's speech on race. On April 22, Pennsylvania holds the next state primary. Thomas Pierce, NPR hide caption

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newspaper rack

The Obama speech on race made headlines in Aliquippa's local newspaper, the Beaver County Times. Thomas Pierce, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Thomas Pierce, NPR

Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) speech on race made the front page of newspapers across the country, including the Beaver County Times in western Pennsylvania.

The paper is on sale at George's Family Restaurant in the town of Aliquippa, located just outside of Pittsburgh, where the same voters who will help decide Pennsylvania's April 22 primary are busy discussing Obama's candidacy — and what he did and did not mention in his speech on race Tuesday in Philadelphia.

What originally led Obama to give his speech was the negative publicity surrounding the remarks of his former pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Among other statements, Wright told his parishioners that the United States brought on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Jerry Holter, 68, is a retired public utilities manager who calls himself a conservative Democrat. Holter says he understands why Obama used the speech to condemn the words of his former pastor but not the pastor himself.

"He has a lot of history with that guy, and he probably has a lot of real good qualities. But when you take some of the things he is shouting about, it's not too good," he said.

Jim Deluca, 71, sits next to Holter. A former teacher who once played football at Penn State, Deluca says the videos of Obama's former pastor forced the candidate's hand.

"He [Obama] had to do something. He had to do something with Rev. Wright's publicity," he said.

One part of the speech that bothered Holter was when Obama noted that he had even heard racist language from his white grandmother as he was growing up, even though Obama stressed that he never doubted his grandmother's love.

"I don't know if I'd do that to my grandmother," Holster said. "I don't know if I'd say those things about my grandmother. I don't think he needed to do that."

Across the table, Bill Zorn, a retired steel worker, watches his friends go back-and-forth. Zorn is a registered Republican who says he, for one, was impressed.

"No one has ever gotten up there and given a speech like that on racism," he said. "What it accomplishes today you can't measure, but what I think is that some of these people are going to sit back and let them look at themselves."

One booth over, Pete Eritano, 69, a retired union official who says he is still undecided in the primary, offered more praise for Obama.

"I think he showed a lot of maturity in how he handled the situation — a very, very explosive situation to begin with — and I think he showed a lot of maturity. And that tells me he might be ready for the job," he said.

But that only prompted more caution from Deluca.

"Like I say, to hear him speak, sounds wonderful. But you don't know his background — and what's coming up is his background," he said.

Pennsylvania is typically seen as a stronghold for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Polls show Obama running behind her in the state, though he still holds a sizeable delegate lead overall.

It had been anticipated that the economy and the war would be the dominant issues for discussion preceding Pennsylvania's primary. But following Tuesday's speech and the reaction at Georges Family Restaurant, look for the subject of race to take a prominent place at the table as well.

Obama Speech Addresses Racial Divide

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Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" Speech

Barack Obama 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

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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.



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