- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, damaged in the public eye by his pastor’s incendiary views on racism in America, yesterday called for a national dialogue on the sensitive topic as the Democrats’ presidential nominating race heads into a final stretch of predominantly white states.

Mr. Obama disavowed the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s remarks but said he can understand blacks’ frustration with lingering racism in the country in the same way that he can identify with white families who are frustrated by job losses.

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past,” Mr. Obama said.

“But … America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”

Mr. Obama said Mr. Wright’s statements — including those in which he said “God damn America” for its history of slavery, racism and oppression against its black citizens — express “a profoundly distorted view” of the United States but that he cannot “disown” his spiritual mentor.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” he said from Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

Interactive: Obama on his pastor & race by the numbers

The speech came as several polls suggest that the Democratic front-runner’s image has suffered since Mr. Wright’s sermons have been replayed on cable television during a bitter nomination fight that has become more racially polarized in recent weeks.

A Rasmussen Reports poll, released Monday, shows that 58 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of the Mr. Wright and that 56 percent of those surveyed said the comments made them “less likely” to vote for Mr. Obama.

A CBS News poll, released yesterday, showed that one-third of voters surveyed think Mr. Wright’s comments have made them feel “more negative” about Mr. Obama.

The Obama campaign points to states that the senator won that have overwhelming numbers of white voters such as Iowa, Idaho, Wisconsin and Virginia. But in last week’s Mississippi contest, black voters overwhelmingly favored the man seeking to be the first black president, and white voters preferred his rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the starkest divisions seen yet in exit polls.

Of the 10 remaining contests, only North Carolina has a high black population — 22 percent of the state’s residents. The others, including the biggest prize of Pennsylvania, have 10 percent black population or less.

Mr. Obama, who long trailed Mrs. Clinton in national polls until winning the Iowa caucus in January, has been talking about uniting the country since giving a Democratic National Convention keynote in 2004. But yesterday’s highly anticipated 37-minute speech was the first time that he has directly tackled racial problems.

Mr. Obama used history — saying the founding documents are “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery” — and detailed his mixed-race biography — his white mother from Kansas, his black father from Kenya — to raise concerns about discrimination, failing schools and economic inequality plaguing people of all colors.

Mr. Obama drew praise from many for raising a topic that many try to avoid but attracted wide criticism for complimenting Mr. Wright as someone who “has been like family” to his wife, Michelle, and his two daughters.

John Derbyshire of National Review labeled the speech “slippery, evasive, dishonest, and sometimes insulting,” while Town Hall’s Mary Katharine Ham said it seemed as if Mr. Obama was excusing his pastor’s comments.

“His distancing speech was more a justification speech than anything else,” she wrote. “Rev. Wright and other, older black citizens are understandably still angry about discrimination they experienced, he said, and those frustrations are given voice at dinner tables and in fiery sermons. This is all right, Barack posits, because white people are angry, too, for much less justified reasons, like affirmative action.”

But conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter, called it the “most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime.”

“Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history,” he wrote at TheAtlantic.com.

Mrs. Clinton said yesterday that she was “very glad” Mr. Obama gave the speech.

“Issues of race and gender in America have been complicated throughout our history, and they are complicated in this primary campaign,” she told reporters. “There have been detours and pitfalls along the way, but we should remember that this is a historic moment for the Democratic Party and for our country.”

Richard Harwood of the nonpartisan Harwood Institute for Public Innovation applauded Mr. Obama for choosing a more difficult path for his speech.

“It would have been very easy to simply say: ‘I didn’t agree, I disown everything he said and let’s move on with the campaign,’ but he actually said we need to face up to this,” Mr. Harwood said. “If he is serious about this, this needs to stay on public agenda through the remainder of the campaign because he’s tapping into a latent desire to talk about these issues.”

The Illinois senator said Mr. Wright represents “the contradictions — the good and the bad — of the community that he has served.”

“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 her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe,” he said. “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

Mr. Obama said his Trinity United Church of Christ “embodies the black community in its entirety,” containing “in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

Mr. Wright is “a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another” and who worked for 30 years in the church and also served his country as a Marine, Mr. Obama said. His remarks “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through,” Mr. Obama said.

He reminded supporters gathered for the speech about Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks that Mr. Obama would not be in such a high political position if he were white, saying Mr. Wright’s sermons and Mrs. Ferraro’s comments provide an opportunity for real racial discourse.

He called for people to come together and talk about racial inequality in education and health care.

“Race is an issue I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said, adding the country has been stuck in a “racial stalemate” for years.

“I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own,” he said. “But … 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.”

SAYETH THE REV. WRIGHT

The following are some of the controversial comments by Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired:

In a sermon shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001:

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye,” Mr. Wright said. “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

In a 2003 sermon, he said blacks should condemn the United States:

“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a ‘three-strike’ law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”

Promoting Mr. Obama’s candidacy in a sermon last December:

“Barack knows what it means to be a black man to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a n—-er.”

Source: Associated Press

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