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Barack Obama Takes On Race in Philadelphia Speech


In the wake of controversy over statements made by his former pastor, Senator Barack Obama directly addressed the inflammatory remarks in a speech on Tuesday. In the speech, delivered from Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, he condemned certain opinions held by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright without denouncing the man himself, explaining that Rev. Wright’s anger and bitterness were the product of experiencing severe racism growing up. He described Rev. Wright—his spiritual adviser of 20 years, who married him and his wife, and baptized their two daughters—as being like family, someone he would not disown in spite of disagreeing with some of his views.

Obama went on to discuss the importance of confronting racial hostilities and discrimination in America, arguing that if we fail to address these realities, we will never move beyond them. And finally, he urged the country to resist treating race as a media spectacle and to start focusing on the issues at the root of inequities in our nation.

On his relationship with Rev. Wright:

“Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety—the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gangbanger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains 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. And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Rev. Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions—the good and the bad—of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.”

On disagreeing with Reverend Wright:

“The profound mistake of Rev. 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. 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.”

On the need for America to address discrimination:

“In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people, that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities, by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system, by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.”