Barack Obama Searches for ‘A More Perfect Union’ During Address on Race

Speech came in wake of controversial comments by senator's former pastor.

From the day he got into the presidential race and emerged as the first black man with a serious shot at winning the presidency, Senator Barack Obama has made it clear that he was not going to make race an issue in his candidacy. But, after being forced to denounce comments made in a videotaped sermon by the former pastor of his Chicago church — in which the Reverend Jeremiah Wright urges black Americans to sing “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America” — Obama reversed his decision to avoid discussing race by making what was promoted as a “major address” on the topic in Philadelphia.

Obama, uncharacteristically using a teleprompter to deliver the speech, on a stage decked with eight American flags, opened with the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” The speech, which some pegged as the most important of his political career to date, went on to deal not just with the Reverend Wright situation, but to denounce inequality on all sides and to implore voters to once again look beyond race to focus on what ails the nation.

Speaking of the struggles of successive black generations to right the wrongs of slavery and racism, Obama said, “This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign — to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction: towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

But it was the Wright controversy that helped frame the speech. Obama had already denounced Wright’s comments several times since the video began making the rounds last week, but he has also defended his spiritual adviser — whom he credits with shepherding him from a secular lifestyle to church membership — saying that the “caricature” being painted of Wright is not accurate.

He again said that the comments by Wright can only further the racial divide in America and that they rightly offend both black and white citizens, but he explained that while he often felt at odds with the pastor’s comments and disagreed with many of his views, he tried to understand where Wright may have been coming from.

“The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial,” he said. “They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America. … As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive — divisive at a time when we need unity, racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.”

Why not just cut off ties to Wright, then? Because, Obama said, the comments being played on an “endless loop” are not all there is to his former pastor, who he said has dedicated his life to caring for the sick and the poor and “doing God’s work here on Earth.” Wright officiated at Obama’s wedding, baptized his two daughters and, he said, he could not disown him any more than he can disown the black community or his white grandmother, who sometimes spoke of her fear of black men who passed her on the street. “These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love,” he said.

Like former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who was vying to be the first Mormon elected to the White House — and who was forced eventually to give a major speech on religion to help calm the fears of some evangelical Christian conservatives who are wary of Mormonism — Obama said he had to finally address the topic due to the Wright scandal, as well as comments from now-former Hillary Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro, who said in a recent interview that Obama would not have made it as far as he has if he was white. The first-term senator from Illinois said that, despite his best efforts, race has often been a recurring issue in the campaign, from his victories in states such as Iowa, with overwhelmingly white populations, to comments from some that he is “too black” or “not black enough.” And so, he conceded, “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.” In an attempt to explain where leaders of Wright’s generation might be coming from, Obama said you need to look at the history of segregation they lived through and how it shaped their worldview.

“For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years,” he said. “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 it finds a voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning.”

He went on to say that a similar anger brews within some segments of the white community, who, despite working hard all their lives, have seen their jobs shipped overseas, their pensions obliterated after a lifetime of service, or who watch as an African-American lands a good job or a spot in college because of an injustice they never committed themselves. “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.”

The issues Wright’s sermon brought up reflect the complexities of race in this country that have yet to be worked through, Obama said, and to simply try and bury the controversy and walk away would assure that we never come together to solve equally pressing issues, such as education, health care and finding good jobs for all Americans.

“This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years,” he said. “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, 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. 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, we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

For all Americans, he said, that path means putting our grievances behind us and focusing on the larger aspirations of all Americans.

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” he said. “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. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

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