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March 19, 2008
Column #1,386
Advance for March 22
Obama's Speech on Race & Religion
by Mike McManus

Barack Obama has made perhaps the most important speech on race since Abraham Lincoln. He had to defend his 20-year association with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has made a series of inflamatory statements in sermons, played over and over on TV.

Days after 9/ll Wright proclaimed, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki...We supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because...America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Wright also charged, "The government gives them (African-Americans) 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."

Obama denounced his pastor's "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike."

Yet he also praised Wright as "a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligation to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor." Obama added, "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me" who officiated at his wedding and baptized his children.

Obama will pay a political price for his association with Wright. Those videos will hurt him with some white voters.  However, he undoubtedly benefitted early in his career by his association with Wright and his church.  They helped him launch his political career. He could not honorably disassociate himself.

However, he seized the opportunity to give a stirring speech on race, steps away from  where the U.S. Constitution was written, "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery," which stalemated the founders until they agreed to continue the slave trade for "at least 20 more years."

Yet he noted the Constitution "had at its core the idea of equal citizenship under the law" plus "liberty and justice." However, it took a "Civil War, and civil disobedience...to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideal and the reality of their time."

He told his personal story of being the son of a Kenyan black father and a white mother from Kansas, raised with the help of white grandparents, being married to a black woman who "carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners...I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."  Imbedded in his genetic makeup is "the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one."
Obama exposed the roots of black church preaching deep into "the bitterness and bias" of the black experience. For years blacks could not get union jobs or become firemen or policemen or own property. "For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away," he said.

"Nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not be 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," as well as "in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews."

However, Obama added that "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."

Equally important, he acknowledged white anger too:  "Most working and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. No one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.

"They are anxious about their futures and feel their dreams slipping away...So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town;  when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed...resentment builds anew."

However, he noted that as "black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments." He urged races to work together on "ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations "

This sort of candor about race is without precedent.  It will help blacks and whites understand one another - and create a better interracial society.

 

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