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Catherine Crier Headshot

Obama's 'Sister Souljah Moment'

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Harken back to June, 1992. Bill Clinton was having trouble with Reagan democrats. Then Sister Souljah, an outspoken rapper and political activist, made some very incendiary comments in a Washington Post interview regarding the horrific LA riots. "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Clinton used a speech before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition to take on both Souljah and Jackson, who had put her on the program the night before Clinton's address.

Clinton, speaking to a predominately black audience, said, "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech." Souljah reacted with great vehemence, saying that Clinton "chose to comment without any investigation whatsoever based on an interview in an ultraconservative newspaper, the Washington Post, which is about as familiar with the experiences of Africans in America, inner city youth, and hip-hop, as Bill Clinton is." Then she engaged in a withering assault on Clinton's candidacy, concluding that "Clinton lacks integrity at painting himself as a staunch patriot, a people's servant, a compassionate liberal, a family man, a pro-woman candidate and a coherent scholar. Sister Souljah was used as a vehicle, like Willie Horton and various other Black victims. A poor excuse for an agenda-less candidate". Rev. Jackson added that Clinton's comments were "designed to set off a dynamic to compete with Dan Quayle on the cultural elite issue and the family value issue." The press had a field day.

Inside the Clinton campaign, there was fear about alienating an important constituency. But certain advisors suggested that it could be a good political move to show toughness against this traditional base. This was clearly an opportunity to gain support from blue collar and suburban white democrats while also appealing to independents and moderate Republicans.

Clinton could legitimately argue, as he did, that his position was not manufactured, but instead, entirely consistent with his campaign message. As he told reporters at the time, he didn't "say anything that I hadn't been saying since I first started running. I called for an end to division, which I've been calling for since I first began this race."

Now fast-forward to the Obama-Wright flap. Obama has made unity and reconciliation a theme of his campaign from its inception. No commentators have expressed any sincere belief that he actually shares the more extreme views of Rev. Wright. They simply call for him to make a clean break from a man more interested in bolstering his own ego and selling an upcoming book than supporting a parishioner and the first black candidate to have a real shot at the presidency of the United States.

Obama made a clear distinction in his speech on race between the views of certain older African-Americans who lived through the Jim Crow and civil rights battles and his generation. While recognizing the shoulders he now stands on, he made it clear he is of the future, not the past. He showed personal integrity by not 'throwing Wright under a bus', but is now a victim of that very maneuver. His bona fides established, he should recognize the opportunity Wright has given him. This is Obama's Sister Souljah moment. He would be foolish not to take it.

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