Moment of Truth

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SEN. BARACK Obama's mission in Philadelphia yesterday was to put the controversy over inflammatory statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his spiritual mentor and pastor for 20 years, behind him. But Mr. Obama (D-Ill.) went deeper than that. He used his address as a teachable moment, one in which he addressed the pain, anger and frustration of generations of blacks and whites head-on -- and offered a vision of how those experiences could be surmounted, if not forgotten. It was a compelling answer both to the challenge presented by his pastor's comments and to the growing role of race in the presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama discussed what he knew about the Rev. Wright's views more frankly than before. "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course," the senator said. "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely. . . . " He went on to say that the comments weren't just controversial, "they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with American above all that we know is right with America."

Yet Mr. Obama didn't condemn the Rev. Wright even as he rejected his rhetoric. Instead, he placed the 66-year-old pastor into historical context: "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." He added, "But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

Mr. Obama then described the resentment among some whites over affirmative action, busing, crime and a shrinking job base, saying those feelings also "are grounded in legitimate concerns." He talked about the need for whites to recognize the lingering problem of racial discrimination -- and for blacks to embrace the "quintessentially American -- and yes, conservative -- notion of self-help."

Mr. Obama's speech was an extraordinary moment of truth-telling. He coupled it with an appeal that this year's campaign not be dominated by distorted and polarizing debates about whether he or his opponents agree with extreme statements by supporters -- or other attempts to divide the electorate along racial lines. Far better, he argued, that Americans of all races recognize they face common economic, social and security problems. We don't agree with the way Mr. Obama described some of those problems yesterday or with some of his solutions for them. But he was right to condemn the Rev. Wright's words, was eloquent in describing the persistent challenge of race and racism in American society -- and was right in proposing that this year's campaign rise above "a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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