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Obama Speech Opens Discourse on Race and Politics

March 18, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama delivered a speech on racial divisions in the U.S Tuesday in a bid to address both controversy over remarks made by his former pastor and the role of race on campaign trail. A panel of analysts reflects on Obama's speech, race and politics.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics. Judy Woodruff has our coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech on race and politics at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, in fact, citing the Founding Fathers’ work right at the start.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama’s campaign had said the purpose of the speech was twofold: to address directly the inflammatory comment made by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright; and to discuss the broader issue of race itself.

Reverend Wright, until his retirement last month, headed Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and had been Obama’s spiritual adviser for nearly 20 years.

But in recent days, some of Wright’s past remarks have received heavy media and Internet attention, like these from a 2003 sermon, in which he characterized the United States government as racist.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, Former Head of Trinity United Church of Christ: The government gives them the drugs, build bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing, “God Bless America”? No, no, no. Not “God Bless America.” “God Damn America.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama disavowed Wright’s comment again today.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as Obama continued, he likened the struggles of African-Americans of Wright’s generation to difficulties faced by white immigrants, arguing the anger of both groups has been misunderstood.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: 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.

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 the beauty shop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians to gin up votes along racial lines or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds 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.

That anger is not always productive. Indeed, all too often, it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition; it prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.

But the anger is real. It is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience.

As far as they’re concerned, no one 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 pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor.

They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And 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 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.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama acknowledged that his candidacy alone could not repair the country’s deep racial divisions, but expressed hope that the divide eventually could be bridged.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: This is where we are right now. It is a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. And 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 candidate, particularly…

… 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton was also in Philadelphia today. Although she said she did not hear Obama’s speech, she said she was glad he gave it, agreeing that race and gender long have been complicated issues in the country’s history.

Obama deftly 'walked a tightrope'

David Corn
Mother Jones
He said the key thing here is for each side to understand kind of where the other side is coming from and what's caused some of these resentments that have led to racial conflict and stress as the way to get beyond this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Barack Obama's speech today, we're joined by four people who've written extensively on the issue of race in this presidential campaign.

Earl Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House." He joins us from Los Angeles.

Laura Washington is a professor of political science at DePaul University and a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. She joins us from Miami.

And here in the studio, we're joined by David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones magazine and Byron York of the National Review.

Thank you all four for being with us.

David Corn, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of the speech?

DAVID CORN, Washington Editor, The Nation Magazine: Well, I wrote that I thought it was daring and unique. I don't think in modern American politics have we ever heard a major political figure deliver such a speech.

Obama, the conventional play would have been for him to sort of just dump Jeremiah Wright, and go running for the hills, and hope this all blows over quickly enough. But instead I thought he gave a very good explanation of where Jeremiah Wright's anger came from and how it was emblematic of what goes on within his own community.

And he wasn't excusing it. He was explaining it, big difference. And at the same time, he did the same thing in terms of white racial resentments. And he said the key thing here is for each side to understand kind of where the other side is coming from and what's caused some of these resentments that have led to racial conflict and stress as the way to get beyond this.

So I thought it was a masterful speech. And I don't think we've seen a politician address these issues so dead-on and do so in a way that, you know, wasn't the easy political play.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson, a speech like we've never heard before?

EARL HUTCHINSON, Author: Well, we have heard those speeches before. You know, politicians in the past, when forced to, have addressed race. However, they've done it in a very abbreviated and truncated way.

As we well know, Bill Clinton, midway through his second term, he actually took a stab at it with a commission. And actually he made several speeches when he did candidly talk about race.

However, I think the problem when you look at what Obama had to do, he's walking a political tightrope. And on the one hand, he had to address this, and he did it really under duress, because for the last two weeks, as we well know, the press has been pounding on that relationship, guilt by association with Pastor Wright, or former Pastor Wright.

So what he had to do was frontally address it and, by extension, go into the racial matters and certainly other issues, too, because these things have come up continually.

But the second problem that Barack had was he's walking the political tightrope. On the one hand, he's pitched his whole campaign around change, hope, and especially unity. And the whole point is to get the broadest appeal, a nonracial appeal.

But on the other hand, when you look at the primaries, you see about 90 percent to 95 percent of his support in some of the states, most recently Mississippi, is coming from African-Americans. So he's got to take another eye and look over there.

So that's the political tightrope he's walking, not to offend his largely black constituency, but at the same time stay in-sync with his broad "race, change, hope, unity" pitch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that was the tightrope he was walking, Byron York, how well did he walk it?

BYRON YORK, National Journal: He did very well. There's no doubt that he did very well.

But Earl is right. It's a speech that he had to give. He's in trouble because of the outrageous things that the videos of Reverend Wright showed him saying, and not just things with a racial tinge, but with an anti-American, kind of a profoundly anti-American tinge that we saw earlier. So he had to do something.

The interesting thing was -- the gutsy move was not to further distance himself from Reverend Wright, as we thought he might, but to say -- but to actually embrace him. He said, "He's like family to me. I could no more denounce and renounce him than I could my white grandmother or the black community." So it was very interesting.

But he did open one door, which was on Friday night, after the story had really gathered a lot of steam, he released a statement saying that those comments that were the cause of the controversy, he, Barack Obama, had not been in church at the time and had not seen Reverend Wright deliver them. If he had, he would have taken some sort of action, he said.

That raised a lot of questions about, well, what has he heard Reverend Wright said? Are these comments that we've seen so unique? Or has he said things like that?

And today in a speech, he did say, "Have I heard Reverend Wright say things that could be considered controversial? Yes." So I do think there's going to be a search for what those things might have been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A search on the part of journalists and others?

BYRON YORK: Well, the press and perhaps Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laura Washington, did he separate himself enough from Reverend Wright in this speech? Did he do what he needed to do? And was that what he needed to do?

LAURA WASHINGTON, DePaul University: That was one of the things he needed to do, was to respond to Wright, but I think he courageously went far beyond that by bringing on the whole issue of race.

Race is the toughest, most thorny issue that America faces today. As he noted in his speech, no one wants to talk about it. And when we do, we talk about it behind closed doors. So for him to put it on the table and try to dissect it was something that he really absolutely had to do.

But the other thing that he had to do was that he had to draw parallels, bring us together, bring us together as a nation, so he could talk about his white grandmother, who may have at one time said racist things similar to what Reverend Wright has said.

He had to talk about the racial fears that all of us feel on both sides of the fence. He had to talk about the history behind that and where that brings us to today. And by doing that, not only has he put it all on the table, but he's taking us to the next step.

As far as Reverend Wright is concerned, yes, he did open that door. I suspect it's because there's probably more out there to come on Reverend Wright. And he can't really separate himself from him, because he was his preacher, as he pointed out, for 20 years. But he did what he had to do, and now he's going to try to move on.

Another less specific speech

Earl Hutchinson
Author and Political Analyst
We need to have more details, more specifics in which to gauge and judge you, not only as a candidate, not only as a possible or the possible nominee, but also as a possible president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much more do you think we're going to hear about Reverend Wright? I mean, to what extent did he put that behind him? I mean, Byron...

DAVID CORN: Well, I think there are conservative commentators and there are political foes who have a very vested interest in beating this drum loudly and in a prolonged manner and trying to dig up more information on this.

I mean, there may be something -- could there be anything more inflammatory than what we've heard already from Reverend Wright? Perhaps. And if there is, I think he'll have to deal with that.

But I think right now people who want to hammer him for the Wright business will continue to do so regardless of anything he has to say. Other Americans who want to deal with the broader issue might be interested in what he had to say today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earl Hutchinson, what else could he have said or, from your perspective, should he have said today?

EARL HUTCHINSON: Well, you know, one of the things that I think is important, he opened up another door, in fact, a big door. For the first time, you really heard him put his finger on three or four areas which have been of great concern.

He talked about disparities in the criminal justice system. He talked about disparities in the education system, which I presume to mean failing inner-city public schools. And he also talked about disparities in the health care system.

So all of these areas, people have asked over and over, "You know, Barack, you make great rhetorical speeches. You're very eloquent. They're very poetic. They're even moving and inspiring, like today. But we really want to know a little bit more to really understand who you are and where you're coming from and what we could expect if you get the nomination and perhaps even win the election."

Namely, put some body. Let's see some initiatives. What can we expect, in terms of public policy changes? What are you going to put your political muscle in and behind if you're in the White House?

These are things that people are asking, not only about race -- although that's there -- but also in other areas. But especially we hear that a lot from, under the table, not overtly, but from a number of those who are sympathetic toward Barack Obama. "We want to hear more. We want to know more. We want to know specifics."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying he didn't do enough of that today?

EARL HUTCHINSON: No, I think what happens with Barack's speeches, you know -- and this has been pointed out many times before, not just by opponents, but also supporters.

It's important, since you're relatively new on the political scene, we need to know not just broad parameters and generalities of where your public policy thrust is going on domestic issues, racial, social issues, issues right here at home.

We need to have more details, more specifics in which to gauge and judge you, not only as a candidate, not only as a possible or the possible nominee, but also as a possible president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laura Washington, go ahead.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Judy -- yes, I was going to say, Judy, to be frank, though, he doesn't want to be boxed in. That's why he's not talking about these policy issues.

I've been covering Barack Obama since he first came to Chicago as a community organizer. And he is a policy wonk. He knows this stuff inside and out. Before he even decided to run for president, he probably had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to go, in terms of the important policy issues facing this country.

He does not want to be boxed in too early in the campaign. He didn't expect the primary campaign to last this long. He wants as much time as he can to look at the landscape, look how quickly, for example, the issues -- the most key issue that's facing the country has changed from Iraq to the economy. He wants enough time to be able to map out that issue and not get boxed in for the general election.

DAVID CORN: But you can find a lot of details on health care, and tax policy, and all this stuff in statements he's made.

Race difficult to transcend

Byron York
National Review
One camp that has an interest in seeing him hurt by this is the Hillary Clinton campaign. They were in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of white, working-class voters, Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, just like there were in Ohio.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to keep us on the conversation of race, because that was the point of this. He said, Byron York, at one point -- he said, "Race is an issue this nation cannot afford to ignore right now." But he also went on to say, "There are aspects of it that we can't let -- we don't want to have take over this campaign."

I mean, is that too fine a line? Is he asking too much of the American political system here?

BYRON YORK: Yes. I think he is. I mean, look, you have to remember this is because -- this has come out because of a political campaign.

And I mentioned Republicans earlier, but obviously one camp that has an interest in seeing him hurt by this is the Hillary Clinton campaign. They were in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of white, working-class voters, Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, just like there were in Ohio, where she did very, very well.

This is a difficult issue for him. If they see the Reverend Wright's stuff, it might give them a very negative impression of Barack Obama.

He made clear today -- he suggested that the entire reason for giving this speech was not just the comments of Reverend Wright, but also the comments of Geraldine Ferraro, the Clinton supporter who had said that Obama wouldn't be where he is in the campaign if he were not black.

So he's suggested that there are these offenses on both sides and that was the reason that a broader discussion was needed, but it was a good, subtle way of bringing the Clinton campaign into this, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Corn, what about Byron's point that he's also -- he's got to reach these blue-collar, white voters.

DAVID CORN: Sure, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did he today help himself with them, not that they're all going to be sitting around watching the entire speech, but...

DAVID CORN: Yes, I think most of them were probably at work today and now they'll hear of the speech. Part of it will depend how it's covered, mainly by their local media, and whether people are going to focus just on the Jeremiah Wright angle or talk about the broader issues that he raised.

You know, in some states, he's done well with low- and middle-income Democratic voters. In Ohio, he did not. He has several weeks now to sort of get his mojo back in that regard.

And I don't think -- the speech doesn't hurt in doing that, but I think in terms of -- I think they will respond more to his campaigning and what he says directly to voters and how he interacts with them in the weeks to come.

Wright, race issue may pop up again

Laura Washington
Chicago Sun-Tribune
He's a black man in America. Race is always going to be front-and-center of his campaign. People look at African-Americans in this country differently than they do whites. It's there. It's the elephant in the room.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let's come back to the Wright controversy. Earl Hutchinson, has he put that behind him?

EARL HUTCHINSON: No. No, he hasn't. And in the column that I wrote back in January -- January 6th, to be exact -- I predicted that sooner or later Wright would come up, sooner or later it would surface.

You know, this is not some fly-by-night minister. He's well-known. He's well-represented in many black religious circles. And he also has a broad base of support.

So I knew sooner or later that some of the things that Wright has said that are inflammatory, even incendiary, would come back and it would haunt Obama because of the long-term association. Will it be put behind him in the future? No, I don't think so.

I think it will die down. There will be a brief flutter, as it has been over the past week about Wright and Obama. There will be some more discussion as we're having today and maybe another day or so about race and its impact. It will die down. They'll be back on the campaign trail.

But another prediction: Within another month or two, and especially if Barack is the Democratic nominee, it will come up again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laura Washington, to what extent does Barack Obama have to continue to worry or be concerned about race as an issue in this campaign?

LAURA WASHINGTON: He's a black man in America. Race is always going to be front-and-center of his campaign. People look at African-Americans in this country differently than they do whites. It's there. It's the elephant in the room.

But he can't let it consume his campaign. Tomorrow, the next day, he's got major speeches scheduled on Iraq, on the economy. He's going to move on.

I think Earl Hutchinson is right: Jeremiah Wright is going to pop up again, precisely because race is such a volatile, thorny issue and precisely because he has many enemies out there who are going to find the video of this or of some other very controversial commentary and they're going to put it out there.

I think what I think he's trying to accomplish in his speech, though, is to acknowledge, "I'm not perfect. My minister is not perfect. None of us -- this union is not perfect. We have to acknowledge that and start somewhere if we're ever to make racial progress."

JUDY WOODRUFF: On balance, is he helped, hurt, or are things right where they were before this speech?

BYRON YORK: Oh, I think he helped himself. I mean, his explanation, kind of hastily done on Friday night, was not enough to really put this to rest, to the degree that it can be.

So I think he helped himself and he also helped change the subject from the specific comments of Wright to the larger question of race in America, which is more diffuse and less troubling in a very specific sort of way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Byron York, David Corn, Laura Washington, Earl Hutchinson, thank you, all four of you. We appreciate it.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Pleasure.