With his brilliant speech on race relations yesterday at the National Constitution Center, Barack Obama showed why his campaign for president has the aura of a mission.
Few candidates face a test of the magnitude that Obama confronted in addressing the racially divisive remarks of his church's former pastor. "God damn America" for its racism, was among the more outrageous statements made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
If Obama defended Wright's remarks, he surely would have lost support. But if the Illinois senator rejected Wright, he could have been seen as throwing overboard a longtime father figure for the sake of political expediency.
Instead, Obama did neither. He condemned the sins but embraced the sinner. And he spoke with such grace and candor about America's need to overcome racial divisions that his own political calculations seemed inconsequential.
"Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Obama said. "We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality."
As the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama is more than qualified to renew President Clinton's national conversation on race in 1997 that, to quote
was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." There was plenty of conversation, but little action afterward.
Obama chose to speak mere yards from where the Founding Fathers perpetuated racial inequality by not daring to address slavery. Obama spoke of the historical record of discrimination against blacks in this country as a roadmap, rather than as an indictment of white America. He gave a sensitive dissertation on where we are, and why.
"Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways," Obama said.
Yet he also showed the capacity to explain to black listeners the frustrations of whites.
"Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race," Obama said. "As far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything . . . So 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 . . . resentment builds over time."
Speaking to the concerns of whites and blacks had a powerful effect. Obama was masterful in arguing that overcoming racial divisions will make it easier for this nation to work on solutions to health care, the economy, and the war in Iraq.
Obama helped his campaign for president. And he showed the leadership necessary to take this country on a more productive path.