Nicholas Kristof: Obama and Race





Barack Obama this week gave the best political speech since John Kennedy talked about his Catholicism in Houston in 1960, and it derived power from something most unusual in modern politics: an acknowledgment of complexity, nuance and legitimate grievances on many sides. It was not a sound bite, but a symphony.

But the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory sermons shows that Mr. Obama erred in an earlier speech — the 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention that catapulted him to fame.

In that speech, Mr. Obama declared that “there is not a black America and a white America... . There’s the United States of America.” That’s a beautiful aspiration, and we’re making progress toward it. But this last week has underscored that we’re not nearly there yet.

The outrage over sermons by Mr. Wright demonstrates how desperately we as a nation need the dialogue about race that Mr. Obama tried to start with his speech on Tuesday.

Many well-meaning Americans perceive Mr. Wright as fundamentally a hate-monger who preaches antagonism toward whites. But those who know his church say that is an unrecognizable caricature: He is a complex figure and sometimes a reckless speaker, but one of his central messages is not anti-white hostility but black self-reliance.

“The big thing for Wright is hope,” said Martin Marty, one of America’s foremost theologians, who has known the Rev. Wright for 35 years and attended many of his services. “You hear ‘hope, hope, hope.’ Lots of ordinary people are there, and they’re there not to blast the whites. They’re there to get hope.”

Professor Marty said that as a white person, he sticks out in the largely black congregation but is always greeted with warmth and hospitality. “It’s not anti-white,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who’s white who walks out of there not feeling affirmed.”

Mr. Wright has indeed made some outrageous statements. But he should be judged as well by his actions — including a vigorous effort to address poverty, ill health, injustice and AIDS in his ministry. Mr. Wright has been frightfully wrong on many topics, but he was right on poverty, civil rights and compassion for AIDS victims....

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