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Barack Obama tackles race in Philadelphia speech

March 18, 2008 |  8:36 am

In a moment that sounded oddly like Mitt Romney talking about religion, Barack Obama just directly addressed the undercurrent -- and occasionally main current -- of race in the 2008 presidential campaign, describing the nation's black-white divide as "a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years."


In a 37-minute speech in Philadelphia, Obama again rejected the incendiary comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright while placing them within the context of a generation raised amid the pain of the civil rights struggle and the "legacy of defeat" shouldered by African Americans who, unlike those who "scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream," still lead unfulfilled lives.

He sought to cast this as a historic moment -- an opportunity to forge change, or to fall back into the stalemate.

"The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few 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 healthcare, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American."

But Obama sought to put Wright's views, and those of many African Americans -- as well as whites -- within a cultural context, and it was unclear whether his tack would bridge the divide or assuage those enraged by Wright's comments.

Obama argued that class weighs heavily, too. "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. ... They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. 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."

In both cases, Obama said, the angers and resentments "distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze," blame he laid at the feet of corrupted corporate culture, "a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests" and "economic policies that favor the few over the many.  And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -– this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."

Obama argued that "like the anger within the black community, these resentments ...

aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk-show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism."

So what to do? For African Americans, "binding our particular grievances" over such issues as better access to healthcare and good schools "to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives -– by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny."

But white Americans must acknowledge "that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people," and that the legacy of discrimination thrives in both personal anger and policy decisions that had led to unequal access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities. "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper."

It was a forceful speech, and a good moment for Obama. The question, of course, is whether it was good enough, and whether he can now move his campaign beyond what has become a major stumbling block for his quest for the Democratic nomination.

-- Scott Martelle

Photo: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times