WASHINGTON — With controversy over his pastor's racially divisive sermons threatening his presidential campaign, Barack Obama tackled race in America head-on Tuesday in a defining speech that drew instant comparisons to John F. Kennedy's 1960 address about his once-controversial Catholicism.
Obama, speaking in Philadelphia, called slavery America's "original sin" and said mistrust between blacks and whites goes both ways. He said that racial resentments have long shaped the nation's political landscape, but that he thinks the nation is changing and that he could help heal the divide if elected.
After campaigning for more than a year as an African-American who transcends race rather than lets it define his politics, Obama had no choice but to embrace the subject. Race has surged recently into prominence as a campaign issue, and Democratic voters in some states, especially those with histories of racial division, show increasing signs of voting along racial lines.
"I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork," Obama said, referring to the firestorm that erupted over racial remarks by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. "But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now."
Wright, who is retiring as pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, drew fire in recent days after TV and the Internet played up some of his past radical statements angrily condemning America for its racism, among other things.
Obama said that while he condemns Wright's controversial statements, "that isn't all that I know of the man. ...He has been like family to me. ... I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
Nor, Obama said, would he disown his own white grandmother, who loved and helped raise him but "who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
Obama, whose oratorical gifts lifted him to national prominence, also referred to his rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., in the context of race and the presidential campaign.
He noted the recent comments by Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, who said that Obama had an unfair advantage because he's black.
"We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies," Obama said. "Or at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"
Instead of confining political discussion of race to such polarizing extremes, Obama said, this time America should elevate the conversation and focus on how to build a more united nation, where people of every background can build better lives and tackle together problems such as health care, education and jobs for all. He said his belief that he can help the country do that is at the core of his presidential candidacy.
The speech was written over the past few days, and Obama stayed up into early Tuesday morning polishing it. Obama played "the most significant role" in the writing, a spokeswoman said, with help from his chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, a white New Englander in his mid-20s, and Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, who is Jewish.
Even before controversy erupted last week over Wright, race was rising as an issue that Obama would have to confront. While he pulled heavy shares of the white vote in many early voting states, such as Iowa, increasingly his support among whites has declined in states with cultural histories marred by racial friction.
Earlier this month, white voters favored Clinton over Obama by a 3-1 margin in Mississippi and by almost as much in Ohio, while black voters went for Obama by 9-1. Jewish voters, too, tend to favor Clinton by 20-point margins or more.
The next big Democratic contest comes April 22 in Pennsylvania, whose Democratic electorate resembles Ohio's, with a large white working-class outnumbering African-Americans. Clinton leads Obama there by an average of 17 points in recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
This racial differentiation has become a major concern for Obama's campaign, not least because the November election could pivot on white men in swing states.
Obama spoke directly to disaffected white voters in his speech.
He said that black men and women of Wright's generation, now in their 60s or older, are still gripped by the humiliation, fear and bitterness of segregation, but he recognizes that "a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and-middle-class white Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race."
They've worked hard and they're threatened by the changing global economy, he acknowledged. "When they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that 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."
Those resentments help forge the Reagan coalition, he said. On both sides of the racial divide, politicians exploited fears and distracted Americans from coming together to solve their common problems.
"This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years," Obama said. "But I have 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. ..."
He also highlighted what he saw as hypocrisies in the harsh focus on his two- decade relationship with Wright and his church. He spoke of Wright's and the church's emphasis on hope, love, human rights and community service.
But he acknowledged about Wright: "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
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Obama's speech (.pdf)