Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign has tried to transcend race, is taking on the issue head-on this morning, trying to quell a controversy over sermons by his former pastor.
In a closely-scrutinized speech in Philadelphia -- the biggest city in the next Democratic nomination battleground and a cradle of American democracy -- Obama started his address by quoting the Constitution: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”
"I chose to run for president 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 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," Obama, framed by American flags, said on a stage at the National Constitution Center.
"This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own story," he continued, citing his own life history, born of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya.
Obama said while he has brought together a multiracial coalition, race has been an issue in the campaign. "At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough.' We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every single exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well," he said. "And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn."
Then discussing at length the remarks by the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Obama acknowledges that he was in the pews at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago to hear some controversial statements -- an admission that seems at odds with previous blanket denials.
"For some, nagging questions remain," Obama conceded. "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 the 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."
Obama then offered his most strongly worded condemnation of Wright's comments. "The remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s efforts 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; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
"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 -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."
But Obama also explains why he remained a member of Wright's church, and says that Wright is far more than the remarks that have caused such a firestorm in the past week.
"As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said. "....I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman 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. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."
Obama then goes on to explain anger in the black community, economic and social disparities, resentment among whites, the different views of race relations -- and the choice the country faces.
"This is where we are right now," he said. "It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naďve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidate -- 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."
Obama then calls for racial unity to tackle the economic, education, healthcare and other problems facing the country.
"We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," he continued. "We can tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the OJ trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina -- or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. 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.
"We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."
Instead, he said, Americans can say, "Not this time," and move forward together to address shared needs.
"I would not be running for president if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country," he said. "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation -- the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election."