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Obama: The race issue takes center stage

What was called for was a

What was called for was a “simple exercise in damage control,” said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. What Barack Obama gave us instead was a speech for the ages. Confronting the first major crisis of his presidential campaign, Obama took to a podium in Philadelphia this week to face the fierce fallout that greeted video clips of his friend and pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ranting against whites and America. Obama was expected to denounce Wright’s remarks, but “no one could have predicted an address of quite this depth and scope.” Obama didn’t merely reject Wright’s words, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial, he managed to place them “in the context of America’s conflicted racial history.” Drawing on his own mixed racial heritage, Obama said he understood both the “anger” expressed by the Rev. Wright and the prejudice he sometimes witnessed in his otherwise loving white grandmother. Solving the nation’s problems, he said, “requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams.”

Stirring words, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. But while Obama may have delivered an “important speech on race in America,” he failed to adequately address the issue at hand, which is “his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor.” Obama couldn’t quite explain how, for 20 years, he’d sat and listened to a man who shouted to his congregation “God damn America,” who calls our country “the U.S. of KKK-A,” and who has declared that “the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” Obama tried to place Wright’s rantings in the context of a racial history that has left many wounded. But Obama’s campaign is based on the premise that “words of unity and hope matter to America.” He can’t now expect us to minimize his spiritual guide’s “words of hatred and division.”

Let’s give Obama the credit he deserves, said Jonah Goldberg in National Review Online. “The Democratic front-runner, the first viable black presidential candidate, showed that a liberal can, in fact, abandon the calcified talking points and buzzwords of racial discourse.” He recognized that the black community too often resorts to “victimology,” and even expressed empathy for whites who feel disadvantaged by affirmative action. But then he resorted to liberal form, suggesting that the solution to racial strife and just about everything else is more government spending. “Rhetorically,” Obama’s speech represented “a historic achievement.” But beyond that rhetoric, “there’s not much that is actually new.”

What’s new, said Jim Mitchell in The Dallas Morning News, is that a leading American politician has actually delivered a “nuanced challenge on race relations.” Obama may have been forced by circumstances to address these issues, but he did so calmly, forthrightly, and with an authority that few can match. The question about whether America is ready for a black president still looms large. But Obama may have “lanced a festering wound the same way that John F. Kennedy set aside concerns that a Catholic in the White House would take instructions from Rome.”

That remains to be seen, said Cynthia Tucker in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Obama’s subtle take on race “may be well-loved by editorial writers and civics teachers.” It’s still not clear, though, how it will play “on the stump,” where white voters in racially mixed states have leaned heavily toward Obama’s rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. We’ll know more after next month’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. But in the meantime, let’s savor the moment. A candidate was willing to lay it all on the line “with a pander-free hour, at a difficult moment in his campaign. It doesn’t happen often.”

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