With racial sentiments swirling in the 2008 campaign—notably, Geraldine Ferraro's claim that Barack Obama is not much more than an affirmative action case and the controversy over his former pastor's over-the-top remarks—Senator Obama on Tuesday morning responded to these recent fusses with a speech unlike any delivered by a major political figure in modern American history. While explaining—not excusing—Reverend Jeremiah Wright's remarks (which Obama had already criticized), he called on all Americans to recognize that even though the United States has experienced progress on the racial reconciliation front in recent decades (Exhibit A: Barack Obama), racial anger exists among both whites and blacks, and he said that this anger and its causes must be fully acknowledged before further progress can be achieved. Obama did this without displaying a trace of anger himself.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Obama celebrated his own racial heritage but also demonstrated his ability to view the black community with a measure of objectivity and, when necessary, criticism—caring criticism. But this was no Sister Souljah moment. He did not sacrifice Wright for political ends. He hailed the good deeds of his former minister, noting that Wright's claim that America continues to be a racist society is rooted in Wright's generational experiences. And Obama identified the sources of racial resentment held by whites without being judgmental. With this address, Obama was trying to show the nation a pathway to a society free of racial gridlock and denial. Moreover, he declared that bridging the very real racial divide of today is essential to forging the popular coalition necessary to transform America into a society with a universal and effective health care system, an education system that serves poor and rich children, and an economy that yields a decent-paying jobs for all. Obama was not playing the race card. He was shooting the moon.
Obama delivered his speech in a stiff manner. The melodious lilt and cascading tones that typically characterize his campaign addresses were not present. This was a speech in which the words—not the delivery—counted. He began with a predictable notion: slavery was the original sin of the glorious American project. Removing that stain has been the nation's burden ever since, and he tied his campaign to that long-running endeavor: "This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign—to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America." And he proclaimed that due to his own personal story—"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas"—he both recognizes the need to heal this divide and possesses an "unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people." Unlike the black leaders of recent years, Obama identified with both the winners and losers of America: "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." He is E Pluribus Unum.