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Obama, Trying to Bridge America's Racial Divide

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Barack Obama spoke Tuesday in Philadelphia about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, and addressed the nation's racial struggles. Video by washingtonpost.com

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

As a rule, politicians don't volunteer to give difficult speeches -- not on sexism, not on religious bias, not even on the sacrifices required of a fiscally troubled nation.

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"Nobody gets into politics to give those speeches," said Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman.

But there was Barack Obama in Philadelphia yesterday, flanked by American flags, wading into the charged subject of race, which has divided Americans since the country was founded. He sounded, at times, like a skilled seamstress with a needle and a piece of thread, trying to carefully stitch together both a deeper portrait of himself and the nation's racial chasms amid a tight presidential contest.

He had been pushed to this moment by a controversy over video snippets of sermons given by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While condemning Wright for comments that were "not only wrong but divisive," Obama also sought to put the minister and the black church in context. In doing so, he seemed to recognize that only a frank public disquisition of America's racial problems and challenges might move the national dialogue forward.

"He's always believed he would have to address race in this campaign," said Cassandra Butts, a longtime friend and adviser of Obama's. "I believe he chose the right moment to do it. It was the kind of sweeping, historic speech that put everything on the table -- not only the fears of black Americans but the fears of white Americans, and how politicians exploit them. . . . I think if he hadn't done what he did today it would have been more problematic down the road."

Obama said that his church home, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, "contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and the successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America. . . . And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. . . . He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served so diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."

But his speech also acknowledged the racial resentments of working-class and middle-income whites -- resentments, he said, that have been stoked by talk show hosts and conservative commentators and manipulated for electoral gain. "This is where we are right now," Obama said. "It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

Getting out of that stalemate, he said, requires Americans to see one another as connected to a common purpose and to no longer "tackle race only as a spectacle" -- the O.J. Simpson trial, Hurricane Katrina, the comments of a Geraldine Ferraro or a Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

"I would not be running for president if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country," he said.

Schroeder, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton but also likes Obama, said: "I think he tried very hard to bring everybody to where we need to bring them. I just hope people heard it."

Several of Schroeder's women's discussion groups instantly sent out the speech, urging more dialogue. One of the long-surviving problems in wrestling with race, said Schroeder, is "the African American community knows a lot more about the white community than the white community knows about the African American community. The majority culture doesn't have to know much about the minority culture because they are the majority culture."

Princeton presidential historian Fred Greenstein said few subjects are more incendiary than race. "Classically, it is one of the third rails of American politics," said Greenstein, who grew up during a period when there were still lynchings and now lives in an era, he noted, of successive black secretaries of state.

Yesterday, he ran into a colleague who was gushing about Obama's speech, saying it was the best he had ever heard. It made him recall John F. Kennedy's difficulty assuaging fears about his religion during the 1960 presidential campaign, finally tackling it head-on in a famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. Kennedy told the ministers that "contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me."

Perhaps, Greenstein added, the country is ready for a deeper consideration of race. "Obama may be capturing a time where a breakthrough is possible on this subject," he said.

Campaign advisers said Obama worked on the speech late into Monday night. There was both hope and apprehension in the Obama camp by the time the speech was circulated among senior staffers Tuesday morning. "If you had a clearly political mind," said one campaign aide, "you wouldn't deal with race at all. You'd run from it."

Ted Shaw, a law professor at Columbia University, said he had long been "thinking that the Obama campaign has been trying to walk a real tightrope on the issue of race. It did not want to get bogged down, entangled in race."

Shaw, who recently stepped down as president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and is publicly neutral in the presidential race, noted that his own pastor, the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem, had addressed the controversy over Wright just this past Sunday. Shaw said that Butts, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton, spoke of the prophetic tradition of black preachers, in which you can speak critically of your country and still love it.

"We love our nation," said Shaw, speaking of African Americans, "but I believe we love it more for what it could be and should be and what it aspires to be than what it has always been."

Shaw noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of this tradition: "When [King] gave the 'I Have a Dream' speech, it could be known also as the 'bounced-check' speech if you know the whole speech. He was critical of his country and he loved his country."

King, from 1963: It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

It is too early to tell whether Obama's speech will change any minds, calm any fears, bring more voters to his candidacy or fewer.

But Shaw believes some things are certain and permanent.

"Senator Obama will continue to have to walk this fine line -- not to be engulfed by this issue of race and on the other hand not deny his experience and identity as an African American man. It shows the continued saliency of race in this country and how devilishly tricky it is for someone in his position who is trying to lead our nation and garner the support of everyone. I thank God I don't have that challenge."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.


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