I imagine it was inevitable that the question of race would take center stage in the Democratic contest. Being the first serious African-American candidate for the presidency and leading in the delegate count, it was only a matter of time until Senator Barack Obama would have to pronounce himself on the race issue. What was not expected was that the inflammatory rhetoric of his friend and pastor, Jeremiah Wright, would dominate the news and throw the Obama campaign off course. The last five days were above all a test of whether Obama was able to deal with an issue that could derail his campaign.
The Illinois Senator had no choice but to address the issue head on. He could have claimed that the media was indulging in guilt by association. That would have been the easy way out. He could also have claimed that the media was overplaying the race card in a way to compensate for what the Clinton campaign asserted ‘was the soft treatment of Barack Obama by the media’. Finally, outside of a few key interviews which dissociated himself from Pastor Wright’s statements, Obama could then have decided to move on and claim that there are other issues to deal with. After all, his campaign was to transcend race and not make it the reason for his candidacy.
Obama chose to do otherwise. He decided to address the issue in ways reminiscent of Martin Luther King back in the early sixties. Rather than disassociating himself from Pastor Wright and in so doing disowning him, Obama decided to give Americans a history course. In subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, he explained the Black experience in America and was particularly poignant when he related his own reality and that of his white grandmother. He spoke of the need to work for ‘a more perfect union’ and reminded his audience of how he felt so proud that his country gave him the opportunity to be where he is right now. Many experts have already labeled this an historic speech. One white historian said it was a speech that you ask your children to listen to because it represents a vision and a hope for a better future and a more unified America.
I do not know if Barack Obama will succeed in his quest for the Democratic nomination or even less for the presidency of the United States. But, if leadership and character represent the most fundamental ingredients in selecting a president, then Barack Obama clearly passed the test in his address on race. His hope was that this campaign not be ‘a race on race’. His campaign has been from the beginning inspired by Dr. King’s fervent hope ‘that a person be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character’. Barack may not have been successful in stopping the controversy or removing the issue of race from this campaign but he proved beyond a doubt that his campaign is more than a race about race. America can only grow by this kind of candidate. Yesterday we found out why Barack Obama is such a serious candidate for the presidency.