President Obama's Other Major Speech on Race in America

Matt Berman

In March, 2008, Senator Barack Obama was under fire. Video of the senator's former pastor and supposed "spiritual mentor" Reverend Jeremiah Wright making a series of racially controversial statements was making the rounds, and threatening to derail his presidential campaign. So the senator decided to give a speech in Philadelphia about race in the United States. It proved to be one of the most memorable moments of not just 2008, but of Obama's political career.

On Friday, President Obama continued that conversation on race in the aftermath of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But looking back at that Philadelphia speech is still telling.

"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas," Senator Obama began. He took on the idea that "some commentators" had "deemed me either 'too black' or 'not black enough.'" He described his current political situation, as he saw it:

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

And he described the Trinty church in Chicago where he had attended Wright's sermons:

Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Of Wright, Obama said:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

And like President Obama did on Friday, Senator Obama reflected on the impact that "inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow" has on the "disparities that exist in the African American community today."

"This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up," Obama said.

They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.


But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table....And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.

But, also like he did on Friday as president, Senator Obama pushed forward a more hopeful view for the future, "a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."

Five years later, it's still a speech worth reading in full. You can do so here.