Accessibility links

Breaking News

Experts Analyze Impact of Obama's Speech on Race


Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama's recent speech on race has drawn both praise and criticism. But even Obama's critics acknowledge that he made a serious attempt to discuss a difficult and divisive issue with roots in the very beginning of the American republic. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has been gathering some reaction to the Obama speech and has a report from Washington.

The immediate purpose of Obama's speech was to put some political distance between himself and his longtime pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Some of Wright's sermons feature anti-white and anti-American comments that have been the subject of intense coverage in the U.S. news media.

But Obama also sought to spark a wider and more complicated discussion about race in America, a discussion Obama contends he is uniquely qualified to initiate.

"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas," Obama said. "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."

Among those who praised the speech was Ron Walters, a longtime analyst of race and politics at the University of Maryland.

"I think he thought, and his campaign thought, that this was an opportunity to add the issue of race to those things that they were talking about in terms of trying to define change," he said. "And so I think that this was a courageous move in his part because he also tied his campaign to it, and he challenged the American people to accept his perspective."

In his speech, Senator Obama condemned the divisive comments by Reverend Wright, but also quickly added that he would not disown him.

Obama also sought to explain Wright's statements in the context of a generation where the memories of racial humiliation and fear remain fresh.

"The anger is real, it is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races," Obama said.

But Obama also discussed anger and resentments over race among whites. He noted, for example, that his white grandmother occasionally uttered racial and ethnic stereotypes that made him cringe.

Analyst Ron Walters says Obama was able to use his own background to his advantage.

"I think that the spotlight on him because of his background gave him a chance to speak to both sides of the issue in a way that probably no other American black politician certainly could have done, and I think it lent credibility to both sides of the issue," Obama said.

Reaction to the speech has been mixed.

Former civil rights activist Roger Wilkins is a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia.

Wilkins told the CSPAN public affairs network that Obama's speech highlights how much more needs to be done in the U.S. to address racial issues.

"There is not a lot of easy social integration in our society and in our educational facilities. There is still a lot of segregation in housing and in education," he said.

On the other hand, some conservative critics said Obama spent too much time on the larger issue of race and not enough on putting distance between himself and Reverend Wright.

Fred Barnes is an editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

"He did not deal enough with the question of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who he says led him to become a Christian and was his spiritual leader and mentor, and yet who has made all these statements in sermons that the church sells tapes of about the U.S. government having invented AIDS so it could inflict it on the black population," Barnes said.

Whether the speech will help Obama politically remains to be seen. Some recent polls in the wake of the Wright controversy have shown Obama slipping against both his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.

The speech was obviously a plus for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who mentioned it when he endorsed Obama's presidential bid last week.

"Senator Obama has started a discussion in this country that is long overdue, and rejects the politics of pitting race against race," Richardson said. "He understands clearly that only by bringing people together and by bridging our differences can we succeed together as Americans."

In his speech, Obama made an appeal for unity and presented an optimistic view on the willingness of most Americans to try and work through some of the racial issues that continue to divide the country.

"What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change," Obama said. "That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope, the audacity to hope, for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."

Political analysts and civil rights activists say the results of the Democratic nomination fight and the general election will have a lot to say about whether Obama's optimism is justified.