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Obama speaks out on US 'racial stalemate'

Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama speaks on race in Philadelphia, 18 Mar 2008
Campaign banners were absent from the podium
There were no "Obama 08" posters, no "Change We Can Believe In" slogans behind Barack Obama as he spoke.

Just a row of American flags.

It was an appropriate backdrop for a speech that was designed to re-establish the Illinois senator's patriotic credentials, following the damage caused by the unpatriotic remarks of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

It had been billed as a "major" speech on race and - by any standards - it was.

A far cry from the standard stump efforts, it was artfully constructed to try to deflate the immediate political crisis of Jeremiah Wright's remarks, by conflating them with the bigger picture of what Mr Obama called America's "racial stalemate".

Stylistically, it was a cross between the bookish Obama of last summer and the more focused Obama of Iowa and beyond.

But how effective was it?

Admission

While renewing his condemnation of Reverend Wright's more controversial comments, the Democratic candidate called on Americans - of all races - to appreciate the long history of injustice which lies beneath the anger expressed by black pastors.

The Illinois senator is often accused of avoiding tough decisions; of skipping important votes. On this occasion, though, he did the presidential thing

It was a broad - some would say brave - point.

But, placed alongside the video of Barack Obama's long time spiritual mentor shouting "God damn America", it may have been too nuanced.

Another gamble was the senator's decision to stand by his pastor; saying he could no more disown the man who had married him and baptised his daughters, than disown the black community or his white grandmother, whose racially-tinged comments had made him cringe.

He also snuck in an admission that he had - contrary to what he had earlier implied - been present when Reverend Wright gave some of his controversial sermons.

Which leaves unanswered the question that has done him the most damage: why did he not object to his pastor's comments earlier?

That is a question that is being asked by many of the white, working class voters he needs to win in the primary here in Pennsylvania in five weeks time.

Voters think again

Shortly after he had finished his speech, I drove to Allentown, just north of Philadelphia, to gauge local reaction.

Barack Obama (l) with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ
Mr Obama condemned Rev Wright's comments

It is an old steel town, made famous by a Billy Joel song, where around 70% of the population is white.

That reaction wasn't always easy to find.

While a Democratic presidential candidate may have decided it was the time to address the race question head on, plenty of ordinary Americans still prefer to keep their opinions on such a sensitive topic to themselves; or - at least - not share them with my recording device.

"I was sure that I was going to vote for Obama," one woman told me, "But this has made me think again."

Others agreed - although the senator did score marks, amongst some, for refusing to do the politically expedient thing and throw his former pastor overboard.

That most people seemed to have an opinion about the Jeremiah Wright controversy suggests that, whatever America's eventual judgement on this speech, it was one that Barack Obama had to make; with the criticisms of recent days getting to the very heart of his central message of being a unifier.

The Illinois senator is often accused of avoiding tough decisions; of skipping important votes.

On this occasion, though, he did the presidential thing.

The next few weeks will tell how it's affected his chances of becoming the next US president.


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Reverend Jeremiah Wright preaching



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