It was probably the most important speech of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and he carried it off with his typical blend of eloquence and common sense. But no one should expect that a single address about America's original sin of race can stop the anger, end the resentment, and heal the pain spawned by the country's tragic history of slavery, segregation, and racial animosity.
Obama's speech in Philadelphia Tuesday morning was prompted by the inflammatory and divisive remarks of his former spiritual counselor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired as pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Wright's comments, taken from his sermons and speeches, have been replayed endlessly on cable TV networks, disseminated on websites, and dissected by the punditocracy. And they have become the subject of countless conversations by everyday people of all races across the country. The comments were widely viewed as antiwhite and anti-American.
Obama's challenge was to distance himself from Wright's comments, which by association could undermine his claim to being a uniting and conciliatory figure, but at the same time avoid severing his ties to the positive side of Wright's ministry, which has focused on many charitable good works and has promoted black pride and involvement in the community.
What emerged was a calm, often erudite exposition that walked a tightrope between sympathizing with the grievances of African-Americans and understanding the concerns of white Americans, especially working-class people who feel they are in competition with blacks for jobs and advancement in society. It was in some ways comparable to John F. Kennedy's famous speech on his Catholicism in 1960, in which he tried to move America's discussion of religion to a more tolerant plane.
"This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected," Obama said in front of several prominently displayed American flags. Obama said Wright's remarks "rightly offend white and black alike." But he added that he still respects the many positive contributions of his former pastor, who inspired him to practice Christianity, officiated at his wedding, and baptized his daughters.
"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," the Illinois senator said. "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."
Obama said Wright made a mistake in speaking only of racism: "It's that he spoke as if our society was static—as if no progress had been made.... But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."
As he made clear in his speech, Obama's father was a black man from Kenya, and his mother was a white woman from Kansas. His white grandparents played a key role in his upbringing.
"I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," he said. "It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts, that out of many, we are truly one."
Strategists of both major parties expect that at a minimum, independent groups critical of Obama will keep Wright's searing commentaries alive in ads and "push polling" by telephone in which white voters will be reminded of Wright's comments. These techniques could be especially damaging in Pennsylvania, which holds the next Democratic presidential primary on April 22.