Obama Chooses Reconciliation Over Rancor
It was an extraordinary moment — the first black candidate with a good chance at becoming a presidential nominee, in a country in which racial distrust runs deep and often unspoken, embarking at a critical juncture in his campaign upon what may be the most significant public discussion of race in decades.
In a speech whose frankness about race many historians said could be likened only to speeches by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, Senator Barack Obama, speaking across the street from where the Constitution was written, traced the country’s race problem back to not simply the country’s “original sin of slavery” but the protections for it embedded in the Constitution.
Yet the speech was also hopeful, patriotic, quintessentially American — delivered against a blue backdrop and a phalanx of stars and stripes. Mr. Obama invoked the fundamental values of equality of opportunity, fairness, social justice. He confronted race head-on, then reached beyond it to talk sympathetically about the experiences of the white working class and the plight of workers stripped of jobs and pensions.
“As far as I know, he’s the first politician since the Civil War to recognize how deeply embedded slavery and race have been in our Constitution,” said Paul Finkelman, a professor at Albany Law School who has written extensively about slavery, race and the Constitution. “That’s a profoundly important thing to say. But what’s important about the way he said it is he doesn’t use this as a springboard for anger or for frustration. He doesn’t say, ‘O.K., slavery was bad, therefore people are owed something.’ This is not a reparations speech. This is a speech about saying it’s time for the nation to do better, to form a more perfect union.”
Mr. Obama’s address came more than a year into a campaign conceived and conducted to appear to transcend the issue of race, to try to build a broad coalition of racial and ethnic groups favoring change. In the issues he has emphasized and the language he has used, as well as in the way he has presented himself, he has worked to elude pigeonholing as a black politician.
He has been criticized as “not black enough” and “too black,” he acknowledged Tuesday. In recent months, the issue of race has stirred up the smooth surface of his campaign and become a source of tension between him and his opponent, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the past week, videotaped snippets of the incendiary race rhetoric of Mr. Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., seemed on the verge of tainting Mr. Obama with the stereotype he had carefully avoided: angry black politician.
He faced a choice: Having already denounced Mr. Wright’s ferocious charges about white America, he could try to distance himself from the man who drew him to Christianity, married him and baptized his two children. Or he could try to explain what appeared to many to be the contradiction between Mr. Wright’s world view and the one Mr. Obama had professed as his own.
To some extent, he did both.
In a setting that bespoke the presidential, he began with the personal: He invoked his own biography as the son of a black Kenyan man and a white American woman, grandson of a World War II veteran and a bomber assembly line worker, husband of a black American who carries “the blood of slaves and slave owners.” Seared into his genetic makeup, he said, is “the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.”
He condemned Mr. Wright’s remarks as divisive but at the same time embraced him as family, “as imperfect as he may be.” He traced the roots of black church preaching deep into “the bitterness and bias” of the black experience. He offered a primer on the link between today’s racial disparities and the system of legalized discrimination that prevented blacks from owning property, joining unions, becoming police officers and firefighters, and accumulating wealth to pass on to future generations.
“For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away,” Mr. Obama said. “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.” And occasionally, he said, “in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.”
He acknowledged white anger, too — over things like affirmative action and forced school busing — but urged both sides to address the subject to find a way forward.
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” Mr. Obama said. He said the controversies over the past couple of weeks “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
Historians and others described the speech’s candidness on race as almost without precedent. John Hope Franklin, a Duke University historian who led an advisory commission on race relations set up by President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Obama pointed out how easily the question of race can be distorted in this country, “which has three centuries of experience with it and yet we act like this is something new.”
Julian Bond, the longtime civil rights activist, said the speech moved him to tears. Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, said he believed the speech would “go down as one of the great, magnificent and moving speeches in the American political tradition.”
“I hear so many people saying we want a national conversation on race but it’s never quite worked,” he said. “He was able to do this in one speech. But he was able to do it in a nonpartisan way in that he saw both sides.”
Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage
There are moments — increasingly rare in risk-abhorrent modern campaigns — when politicians are called upon to bare their fundamental beliefs. In the best of these moments, the speaker does not just salve the current political wound, but also illuminates larger, troubling issues that the nation is wrestling with.
Inaugural addresses by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt come to mind, as does John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on religion, with its enduring vision of the separation between church and state. Senator Barack Obama, who has not faced such tests of character this year, faced one on Tuesday. It is hard to imagine how he could have handled it better.
Mr. Obama had to address race and religion, the two most toxic subjects in politics. He was as powerful and frank as Mitt Romney was weak and calculating earlier this year in his attempt to persuade the religious right that his Mormonism is Christian enough for them.
It was not a moment to which Mr. Obama came easily. He hesitated uncomfortably long in dealing with the controversial remarks of his spiritual mentor and former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who denounced the United States as endemically racist, murderous and corrupt.
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama drew a bright line between his religious connection with Mr. Wright, which should be none of the voters’ business, and having a political connection, which would be very much their business. The distinction seems especially urgent after seven years of a president who has worked to blur the line between church and state.
Mr. Obama acknowledged his strong ties to Mr. Wright. He embraced him as the man “who helped introduce me to my Christian faith,” and said that “as imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me.”
Wisely, he did not claim to be unaware of Mr. Wright’s radicalism or bitterness, disarming the speculation about whether he personally heard the longtime pastor of his church speak the words being played and replayed on YouTube. Mr. Obama said Mr. Wright’s comments were not just potentially offensive, as politicians are apt to do, but “rightly offend white and black alike” and are wrong in their analysis of America. But, he said, many Americans “have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagree.”
Mr. Obama’s eloquent speech should end the debate over his ties to Mr. Wright since there is nothing to suggest that he would carry religion into government. But he did not stop there. He put Mr. Wright, his beliefs and the reaction to them into the larger context of race relations with an honesty seldom heard in public life.
Mr. Obama spoke of the nation’s ugly racial history, which started with slavery and Jim Crow, and continues today in racial segregation, the school achievement gap and discrimination in everything from banking services to law enforcement.
He did not hide from the often-unspoken reality that people on both sides of the color line are angry. “For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation,” he said, “the memories of humiliation and fear have not gone away, nor the anger and the bitterness of those years.”
At the same time, many white Americans, Mr. Obama noted, do not feel privileged by their race. “In an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game,” he said, adding that both sides must acknowledge that the other’s grievances are not imaginary.
He made the powerful point that while these feelings are not always voiced publicly, they are used in politics. “Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition,” he said.
Against this backdrop, he said, he could not repudiate his pastor. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” he said. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.” That woman whom he loves deeply, he said, “once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street” and more than once “uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
There have been times when we wondered what Mr. Obama meant when he talked about rising above traditional divides. This was not such a moment.
We can’t know how effective Mr. Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race. What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy — he raised the discussion to a higher plane.