Barack Obama’s speech on race

4:56 pm - March 18th 2008

by Gracchi    

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Barack Obama today gave a crucial speech. He had to respond to his critics who had brought up the fact that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had in the past made racist comments about white people and had condemned the United States. Obama took the stage in order to explain why Wright was his pastor and why he beleived that that still made him a fit person to be President of the United States. My instant thought is that he succeeded completely in doing what he had to do. Though how it goes down with the electorate is obviously a different matter.

Obama’s speech stems from a concept that seems almost forgotten on the right wing of the political spectrum- charity. Stemming from religious ideas about the way that we should behave around others- Obama encouraged his audience to hate conditions which promoted racism and other vices but not to hate the individuals that held those views. Perhaps this came through most importantly when he spoke of Reverend Wright: he said

I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Its worth reading that again and again and realising what Obama rightly is saying here: none of us is entirely present in our worst moments. Jeremiah Wright’s worst moments abstracted from the record are ugly- and he should not serve (and since he has resigned does not serve) upon Obama’s campaign. But he is not a devil incarnate- and were Obama to walk away from him now, Obama would have failed in his own duty to remember the man’s kindnesses and not judge him by the worst moments or utterances of his life. Political campaigns often seem to be run by and for those who cannot accept human life in all its complexity and just feel a rage, a rage which seeks to consign everyone who makes a misstep to the outer darkness. If anyone ran their lives in this way then they would be poorer for it, and I think it is a sign of maturity that Barack Obama doesn’t.

Furthermore Obama then went onto consider why Wright felt what he felt. Why did he say the things he said? He linked Wright’s arguments to those of whites angry about their treatment within the United States. What Obama picked up on though which is an interesting and important lesson (it is also the main point of the flawed film American History X) is that hate gets you nowhere. It is Obama’s contention that his pastor’s hate is the wrong way to deal with the history of Blacks in the US. Blacks in the US have been discriminated against for hundreds of years- they suffered massive discrimination as late as just after World War Two when they were systematically excluded from various welfare programs to help returning soldiers. Obama is right to say that that situation encouraged many of his pastor’s generation to become incredibly angry with the system that had produced such injustices- he is also right to say that such anger is not productive. It led his pastor into massive error: Obama is right to say that he himself is a product of an interracial marriage that would not have been possible in many societies before the twentieth centuries and in many places apart from America might have been more difficult to maintain. Furthermore hatred threatens to destabilise society in the opposite direction- not creating a perfect union but leading to more resentment from the other side and to the growth of all sorts of other kinds of social instability. Obama’s charity extends to trying to understand those who oppose him, trying to work out why they are angry and rather than share their anger, trying to work out what would appease it.

Hence, Obama suggests that the real way forwards is to fix the problems that afflict American society- and often afflict white and black people, women and men. He suggests that the US needs to confirm yet again its commitment to a more perfect union based on the equality of citizens before the law and before each other. He suggests various reforms to do that and to enable the poorest to reach the top of society. Such measures Obama argues will defuse the anger that his pastor feels, whilst dealing with the problems his pastor accurately diagnosed and diagnoses. This is a speech of a candidate who wants to move beyond that hatred to something else- to actually dealing with the problems that Americans of all colours and sexes feel. That has to be the proper approach. Afterall there are white male Americans who suffer as much as anyone from the failure of the US to provide universal healthcare. And furthermore it remains true to the essentially Christian message of hating the sin and not the sinner that Obama wants to propagate. Obama’s campaign is one of the most religious campaigns in US history- definitely more religious than many Republican campaigns from the religious right have been over the last couple of decades- because Obama understands that point about sin and sinner. He understands also the point about the futility of anger and furthermore the point about individuals being a sum of their good points and errors, not just explained by their errors.

Obama restates in this speech that he isn’t an advocate of racial revolution or even civil war: he is an advocate of reform which will help all Americans but particularly the poorest (who happen to disproportionately come from communities that were historically disadvantaged). In that sense he wants not merely to move beyond racism and endorses racial equality, he wants to create the situation in which more and more people will agree with him by dealing with the causes of racism. That has provoked snide comments from the right, but compared to the work of the Steyns and the Schiffrens this was a mature and thoughtful examination of what lies behind racism and how we can deal with its causes.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Reader comments

Agree with all you said, and its a fantastic summary of the speech. I’m not sure the American public will buy it though. I’m worried the negatives will creep up… especially amongst Republicans. With Democrats, they may forgive more easily.

There are errors and errors though, are there not?

Obama’s line strikes me rather like the police chief in Casablanca: “I am shocked – shocked – to find that racism and anti-semitism is going on in here”.

And as for somehow comparing the disgusting Wright to his grandmother:
“”I can no more disown him than I can 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.”

Pathetic. Wonder did he check the speech with her?

You can choose your “spiritual advisor”; you can’t choose your gran.

I share Andrew Sullivan’s gung-ho approach to Obama but isn’t this going over the top a bit:

Alas, I cannot give a more considered response right now as I have to get on the road. But I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.

And it was a reflection of faith – deep, hopeful, transcending faith in the promises of the Gospels. And it was about America – its unique promise, its historic purpose, and our duty to take up the burden to perfect this union – today, in our time, in our way.

I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy – not this man, his candidacy – and what he can bring us to achieve – is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man’s faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

Bill Clinton once said that everything bad in America can be rectified by what is good in America. He was right – and Obama takes that to a new level. And does it with the deepest darkest wound in this country’s history.

I love this country. I don’t remember loving it or hoping more from it than today.

cjcjc – Well I didn’t expect you to think any different. But in response, his point isn’t abot who you can or cannot choose – but about accepting people’s shortcomings and mistakes.
Your country for example does lots of bad things. Do you change nationality every time?

Sullivan must be in love!

You rather mean that “my government” does lots of bad things rather than “my country”.

I’m afraid I draw the conclusion that Obama is either not being honest or has very bad judgement or (heaven forfend) shares at least a gist of Wright’s sentiments.
Were the Wright sermons which we have seen rare “errors” which were delivered the weeks Obama happened to be away?
I simply don’t believe it.

As I said before, there are small mistakes and big mistakes.
Small ones which I can accept, and bigger ones which would make me re-evaluate a relationship.

And comparing Wright with his gran…that really is pathetic.

I know this is (obviously) a pro-McCain blogger, but his thoughts have some insight.

Certainly a little more insightful than Andrew “blinded by the light Sullivan in this case!

“Again, he’s the Invisible Man, someone we’ll never be able to pin down on his beliefs. He will “disagree” with Rev. Wright, the man who claims the U.S. government “invented HIV” to kill Blacks, but he will not disown him, as he should. The most liberal member of the Senate, Obama claims to have a special ability — one never demonstrated — to reach across the aisle and bridge political divides. On every issue, Obama is a programmatic liberal.

Is he just lying to us? Or is he truly uncertain of the contrast between what he says and what he does?

Again, we don’t know Barack Obama — and we probably never will. That’s the real message of Tuesday’s speech. .”

I wish he wouldn’t have tried to excuse and condone Wright’s racial, bigoted, hateful behavior. There is no excuse. Just as I wish that instead of a manufactured speech he would have given a candid interview with the press to answer those “nagging” (bad word to use) questions.

Luke – he gave plenty of interviews, even on Fox, completely disagreeing with those words.

but he will not disown him, as he should.

Again, he’s addressed this point. He sees the pastor as part of his family like a grandma. So the analogy applies. And again, I made the analogy with your country (or govt if you will) but you didn’t address it. What would you do?

The white anger-black anger passage was the strongest for me. Perhaps there is a way of transmuting that into this context and finally start to move beyond the sterile debate about mutli-culturalism v integration? Perhaps the message of recognising each other’s frustrations and not setting ethnicities against one another is a message that should be addressed in the British context?

Incidentally, Sunny’s point is exactly right- Obama repeatedly denouced, rejected (don’t start that one again….) the words in his speech. Who amongst us hasn’t heard family, friends, or colleagues make bigoted, homophobic or sexist comments? If you are sensible, you deal with each situation as it arises and it will be different for each person (would you address it the same way with an elderly Uncle as you would with a contemporary?) Sometimes you have to separate the person you know from foolish comments that they may occasionally make. Obama has dealt with this absolutely appropriately.

p.s. Just watching Fox News and Obama’s ratings are bombing according to Rasmussen polls. I hope that this speech draws a line. He is moving on to the Iraq War over the next couple of days. If I was him I’d get onto the state of the economy and sharpish.

9. douglas clark


I thought it was a magnificent speech, and I thought your comment at 7 was right on the button. Your comment at 8 has me in despair, however.

Maybe he now owns the race arguement and it will be ‘interesting’ to see how HRC or JMcC respond. I assume, they must respond?

The idea that you must give up on a chum, just because he’s gone a bit loopy, seems to me to be quite a – ‘news, 24, newsmedia’ – spin on relationships. We all, probably, have a ‘mad uncle George’ who says the most un PC things, who we still care about.

Whether that line of arguement will play big in Peroria, has yet to be seen.

Barack Obama is a liar

To all
Obama speech ,,,, Not sure if you caught Not only did Obama,,, Refuses to denounce him,, but even More,, He say in his own words,,,
Barack Obama was in church when Jeremiah Wright,, was spewing Anti-American, Racist ism ,,,, Those were his own words,,, barack was there
After going on keith Oberman ,Show obama said he would denounce that if he heard that language he would leave and not tolerate it , and denounce it
After he went on MSNBC,, he went on FOX CNN ABC< all the news station saying he was never there,,, in his church when he said these things,,
But Now today during his speech,,He states flat out Say’s HE was there,,, Last week Barack Obama Lied,, went on all the news stations, and Lied,,
But your not reporting that,,,, You can rest assure,,, cnn ,,, Fox , ABC,,, Msnbc,, are getting more on this ,,, they will be reporting on this, and we will see
If you chose to report, Obama Lying on tv,,, If this was Hilary clinton lying and caught lying on all the new station,,, you can be sure,, you would talk about it every hour
people will be on your station debating this,,,, people analysing , if it is hilary clinton but it was not her it was Barack Obama, ,, it bad enought He lied, about being in church
With Jeremiah Write, when he said these anti american ,,,,,and still refuse to denounce him…all the news agency want to do is speak on how good his speech was,
Not that he lied,,, Last week on all the news agency ,, He was never there today in how own speech He say I was there,,,,should play all Obama videos from last week
stating he was not there,,, or heard any of the anti-american Jeremiah Write, said in his churc then play his speech today saying he was there and he did hear him in church and refuse to denounce Jeremiah Wright,,,

Sunny – your analogy is a poor one, but I will answer it!

Firstly, country and government are two different things.
And I am only likely to see the government as “my” government if I voted for it and, even then, I have no problem condemning or disowning dependent upon what they actually do.

“The idea that you must give up on a chum, just because he’s gone a bit loopy,”

Is the argument now that Wright has only just started taking this line?
Yeah, right.
No hint of any racism or anti-semitism or general (“the govt created HIV”) lunacy until now?

And his grandmother’s privately uttered occasional racial stereotyping is the same as an influential “spiritual leader” spouting hate from the pulpit to a large congregation?


Douglas Clark,

Yes, I can see why my comment (number 8) had you in despair. But he’s had his say and dwelling on this is going to hurt him I fear. To build an administration around the principles that he articulated yesterday he needs to address a breadth of concerns and his oppponents may be the only beneficiaries if he dwells on this so best to move on now and re-visit in the election.

There was some reaction from Clinton yesterday. She said this primary campaign had suffered from racism AND sexism. On the sexism front, I am sure she is right to a certain extent- I guess she was referring to the questioning of her time as First Lady as not being genuine experience. Personally, I don’t see how that critique is sexist. I do see the attacks on Obama as certainly racially divisive and perhaps racist also (though I would hesitate about using that allegation.)

Historically, we are talking about different things also. The only women who were subject to Jim Crow or slavery were black. I think that makes discussions about race and sex different things in the US historical context.

14. douglas clark

cjcjc @ 12,

Yes, it is.


It is the dark underbelly of intolerance. What is said privately, what is alluded to publicly. If the public and private are not the same dam’ thing, then we are in strange territory, a sickness of the mind, if you will. Audience share isn’t the issue.

“Audience share isn’t the issue.”

Granny was expressing her private feelings.
Wright was (is) actively proselytizing hatred.

No difference between (say) a confused voter of Barking and Nick Griffin?
You’re right Douglas – no difference there at all!

Why did Obama initially lie about knowing what kinds of things Wright had been saying?
More importantly, why did the great unifier not try to show him the error of his ways?

16. douglas clark


No difference between (say) a confused voter of Barking and Nick Griffin?
You’re right Douglas – no difference there at all!

Yup, that is what I am saying. There is no distinction to be drawn between closet racists and out and out demagoguery. They are the two faces of the same coin. Stupid shills, both.

Obama claims that Wright holds strong convictions. I do not agree with Wright, anymore than I agree with you. Sstill, it would be a sterile old world if Obama didn’t hear these opinions, and still rise above them

Which is what he did, IMHO.

However, your cynicism may well prove to be right. This was an appeal to the better nature of Americans, and, frankly, I don’t think they have a better nature. You can call me an equal opportunities cynic if you like.

“still rise above them”

How about, as befits his claim to the highest office, possibly challenging them?
Or is that too much to ask of a prospective president?

Did he, say, challenge his church’s “Lifetime Achievement” award to the charming Louis Farrakhan?

The best opportunity for a more racially united USA would be for a successful Barack Obama Presidency (no matter what Shelby Steele or Trevor Phillips may say.) He may not be successful but surely it’s worth a punt? I’m not sure a protracted political discussion about what does constitute racism and what doesn’t or whether certain types of racism are worse than others will really contribute to his chances.

The polling evidence is starting to show that this row is hurting Obama. But you know what? It’s hurting Clinton as well!

So not only could it damage the prospects of an Obama Presidency but it could damage the chances of a Democratic Presidency. I’m sure the eventual nominee will recover from this but this style of discourse is now measurably hurting the Democrats. There is an urgent need to make this a short-term rather than lasting trend.

I’ve put some of the poll figures on my blog or take a look at to see directly how the Gallup and Rasmussen polls have shifted in the head to head with McCain over the last few days.

19. douglas clark


I have had relatives that were mentally ill. I would no more deny them than challenge them. What I am gently suggesting to you is that your entire grammar is a bit askew.

But you are not to be denied. Mad Yanks dol not see nuance.

It is all a bit reminiscent of the Hillary Clinton attack machine in full Terminator mode.

20. douglas clark

Dol should be do. Obviously.

Douglas – may I gently suggest that your excuse machine is now overheating!

Are you suggesting that Wright is mentally ill?
(And he is not Obama’s relative.)

In fact it doesn’t matter. Mad or not, Obama had an obligation at least to try to stop his public hatemongering. Too much to ask from a presidential candidate?

You might not have denied or challenged your relatives, but I assume you would at least have attempted to restrain them from harming others?

22. douglas clark

May I gently suggest that your cynicism is your only modus operandi?

Yes, I am suggesting that Wright was not the brightest bulb in the chandeller. What I am saying, and I’d have thought this was obvious, that reading or listening to folk is not a sin. Else, reading you would have made me into a Republican.

It ain’t happened yet…..

“May I gently suggest that your cynicism is your only modus operandi?”

In the case of politicians, probably.

“reading or listening to folk is not a sin”

No, but for a *presidential candidate* to be happy to have a racist nutter as his “spiritual advisor”…maybe a little skepticism at least is in order here?

Wright was (is) actively proselytizing hatred.

This is a bizarre statement to make. Tell me what exactly he said that can be construed as promoting hatred.

For starters
“”The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

How about the award to Louis Farrakhan?
That’s nothing other than promotion of hatred!

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