Obama Opens Up on Society's Racism; Can't 'Disown' Pastor, Sees Chance for Change

Article excerpt

Byline: Christina Bellantoni, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Sen. Barack Obama, damaged in the public eye by his pastor's incendiary views on racism in America, yesterday called for a national dialogue on the sensitive topic as the Democrats' presidential nominating race heads into a final stretch of predominantly white states.

Mr. Obama disavowed the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s remarks but said he can understand blacks' frustration with lingering racism in the country in the same way that he can identify with white families who are frustrated by job losses.

"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old - is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past," Mr. Obama said.

"But ... America can change That is the true genius of this nation."

Mr. Obama said Mr. Wright's statements - including those in which he said "God damn America" for its history of slavery, racism and oppression against its black citizens - express "a profoundly distorted view" of the United States but that he cannot "disown" his spiritual mentor.

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," he said from Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

The speech came as several polls suggest that the Democratic front-runner's image has suffered since Mr. Wright's sermons have been replayed on cable television during a bitter nomination fight that has become more racially polarized in recent weeks.

A Rasmussen Reports poll, released Monday, shows that 58 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of the Mr. Wright and that 56 percent of those surveyed said the comments made them "less likely" to vote for Mr. Obama.

A CBS News poll, released yesterday, showed that one-third of voters surveyed think Mr. Wright's comments have made them feel "more negative" about Mr. Obama.

The Obama campaign points to states that the senator won that have overwhelming numbers of white voters such as Iowa, Idaho, Wisconsin and Virginia. But in last week's Mississippi contest, black voters overwhelmingly favored the man seeking to be the first black president, and white voters preferred his rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the starkest divisions seen yet in exit polls.

Of the 10 remaining contests, only North Carolina has a high black population - 22 percent of the state's residents. The others, including the biggest prize of Pennsylvania, have 10 percent black population or less.

Mr. Obama, who long trailed Mrs. Clinton in national polls until winning the Iowa caucus in January, has been talking about uniting the country since giving a Democratic National Convention keynote in 2004. But yesterday's highly anticipated 37-minute speech was the first time that he has directly tackled racial problems.

Mr. Obama used history - saying the founding documents are "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery" - and detailed his mixed-race biography - his white mother from Kansas, his black father from Kenya - to raise concerns about discrimination, failing schools and economic inequality plaguing people of all colors.

Mr. Obama drew praise from many for raising a topic that many try to avoid but attracted wide criticism for complimenting Mr. Wright as someone who "has been like family" to his wife, Michelle, and his two daughters.

John Derbyshire of National Review labeled the speech "slippery, evasive, dishonest, and sometimes insulting," while Town Hall's Mary Katharine Ham said it seemed as if Mr. Obama was excusing his pastor's comments.

"His distancing speech was more a justification speech than anything else," she wrote. …