In a speech given earlier this morning, presidential hopeful Barack Obama offered a ranging take on race relations in America that used the inflammatory remarks of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, as the springboard. Obama admitted to having heard instances of Wright's controversial remarks, as well as confessing to having strenuous disagreements with them. He repudiated the remarks, but not the man, and offered his own maternal grandmother as an example of the line he was walking: according to Obama, she had, at times, uttered "racial stereotypes" that made him "cringe."
But the most engaging, and perhaps unexpected, section of his speech, was a challenge issued to the black community and a broad criticism of Jeremiah Wright's failings. Obama stated that the path forward for the black community was to continue to demand a "full measure of justice," but to bind this passion to the betterment of all Americans, as opposed to using it to inflame and reinforce their own resentments. Obama depicted Wright as being on the wrong path, and highlighted how clinging to racial grievances had undermined the better angels of Wright's nature and the good he had done for his community. In Obama's eyes, Reverend Wright had succumbed to resentment and division, making a "profound mistake":
OBAMA: For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances for better health care and better schools and better jobs to the largest aspirations of all Americans, the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means also taking full responsibility for our own lives. By demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. They must always believe -- they must always believe that they can write their own destiny. Ironically, this quintessentially American and, yes, conservative notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help requires the belief that society can change. 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 had 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, Asian, rich, poor, young and old, is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change, that is the true genius of this nation.