That’s what Rev. Jesse Jackson called the controversy over Sen.
Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright’s history of inflammatory
preaching and Obama’s speech today that addressed the tensions surrounding it.

The address presented Sen. Obama, who leads Sen. Hillary
Clinton in the delegate tally for the Democratic nomination, with two
important tests: show voters that he could beat back an unfolding
political crisis while dispelling the notion that he shares his
pastor’s views that seem to contradict his call to transcend the
nation’s racial divisions. 

So what did we learn? For one thing, that it’s time to put the issue
of race out there on the center of the table and take a good look at it
instead of dancing around it anymore, for one agenda or another.

“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot
afford to ignore right now,” he said.  “We would be making the same
mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about
America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the
point that it distorts reality.”

He continued:  “The fact is that the comments that have been made
and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the
complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked
through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.  And if we
walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we
will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health
care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

That drew sustained applause from his audience at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center.

This was Sen. Barack Obama under real stress and scrutiny for the
first time. And his oratory was….different. This was more personal and
profoundly rattling than anything that has gone before in this campaign.

In the address, Sen. Obama sought to dispel any doubts
about his relationship with Mr. Wright, where he said he knew that Mr.
Wright had been a fierce critic of U.S. domestic and foreign policy,
that he had heard him make some controversial remarks in church, and
that he strongly disagreed with many of Mr. Wright’s political views.

But he said Tuesday that those remarks weren’t simply controversial.
“They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country,” he was
scheduled to say. “A view that sees white racism as endemic, and that
elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right
with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as
rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead
of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

Sen. Obama also refused to disown Rev. Wright, a move that risked
the appearance of casting off a close friend and spiritual adviser in
order to save his political ambitions.

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” he
said. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother,” a
woman who helped raise him but had confessed her fear of black men who
passed 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,” he said.

“And part of the America I love,” I recall hearing right after that.
That is no doubt true, and evident in his campaign speeches and the
pained oratory he delivered today. He embodies, he noted, the racial
divide within himself, the contradictions of the black community (as
Obama said in reference to Rev. Wright) and the white mother and
grandmother who raised him in a white environment.

So….

Sen. Obama appealed to the media, in part, to help move
beyond the racial back and forth that has grown to define the
Democratic contest.

“We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day
and talk about them from now until the election,” he said. “We can
pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s
playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will
all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his
policies.”

“But if we do … nothing will change,” he said.

And now this can serve as the launching point to discuss, more seriously than before this controversy erupted, what will change, if this or any other candidate becomes president.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....