WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama on Friday diverted from his standard stump-speech's emphasis on ending the Iraq war and uniting America, instead telling a black audience in the nation's capital that if he becomes president, he'll reshape the Justice Department and criminal justice system to help minorities.
Obama's remarks at Howard University, a traditionally African-American school, were striking because throughout his campaign, the biracial Democratic senator from Illinois hasn't emphasized race.
His speech came days after the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine's integration of public schools and the "Jena 6" civil rights protest, which drew thousands of black protesters to Louisiana, elevating racial consciousness in public life.
Various polls suggest that Obama may lag behind front-runner Hillary Clinton, even among black voters, in the Democratic nomination contest, and both factors may have influenced his decision to emphasize racial issues.
Obama and Clinton both addressed the Congressional Black Caucus' annual legislative conference Friday, but at Howard, where Obama received an honorary degree, the stage was his alone.
He told the audience of 1,500 that he'd seek to end sentencing that punishes users of crack cocaine more harshly than those who take powder cocaine, "when the real difference is where the people are using them or who's using them." He softened the rhetoric from his prepared text, which said the difference was "the skin color of the people using them." The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the issue Tuesday.
Obama also suggested that he'd scale back voter-fraud investigations in black and Latino districts in favor of investigations into voter suppression, hate crimes and job discrimination.
He said he supported videotaping confessions, which is controversial among law enforcement agencies. He pledged to recruit more public defenders by giving breaks on law school loans. And he called for a law curbing racial profiling, death-penalty revisions and shorter sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug users.
"Black folks care about stopping crime," he declared, but he also emphasized that "it's time to seek a new dawn of justice in America."
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Read the prepared text of Obama's speech.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007