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Will Obama's Speech on Race Settle Controversy?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Senator Barack Obama delivered a wide-ranging speech on race yesterday, a speech in which he said the American people have a choice.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race, only as spectacle, as we did in the OJ trial, or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina, or as fodder for the nightly news.

MONTAGNE: That, said Obama, is one option.

Sen. OBAMA: Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say not this time.

MONTAGNE: Barack Obama's address came in the midst of controversy over inflammatory remarks made by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, Senator Obama once again condemned the remarks made by Reverend Wright, but he also said he could no more disown him than Obama could disown his own white grandmother, a woman, he said, who loves him as much she loves anything in the world or anyone in the world, but who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her on the street. Will this comparison and this explanation settle the controversy, more particularly, satisfy his critics?

WILLIAMS: You know, that's the problematic heart of this speech, Renee. The question is why Senator Obama maintained a relationship with Reverend Wright, a man who has said things like, you know, the government is pumping drugs into the black community or spreading AIDS among people of color, has said that America's foreign policy is somehow equal to that of the terrorists who attacked on 9/11. The idea, Renee, that his grandmother expressing concern about black as you just said is quite different than Reverend Wright's statements. Obama said yesterday those were divisive, hateful statements. And somehow, Barack Obama tried to make them parallel in scope.

MONTAGNE: He spoke about the country's history of racial division. He acknowledged anger and resentment among both blacks and whites. For those who aren't critics but caught up in the controversy, how was this speech received?

WILLIAMS: Well, here is the key. There are several audiences, Renee. You have what I would term Reagan Democrats, white voters, many of them middle income working class people who found - had found Obama inspiring, and, you know, the idea is that they could invest in him their ideals, trying to get beyond the racial static in this country and the history of racism. But they may have found Reverend Wright's views threatening enough to make them wonder about Obama. Was he the racial conciliator, or was he the angry black politician? But at the same time Senator Obama yesterday was speaking to the black community, Renee. And he was making it clear that he was not going to turn away from Reverend Wright, not turn away from the black church or the black community, because that would have punctured the base of his political support right now. So he was speaking to several audiences.

MONTAGNE: So, a challenging moment for Senator Obama.

WILLIAMS: Oh, boy, was it. I mean, it's a challenging moment. And in so many ways, you know, Senator Obama lived up to the challenge because it was quite a speech. But Obama's identity is central to the story, bi-racial, went to the best schools in the country, is a personification of modern America. But suddenly, he finds himself back in the fights of the '50s and the '60s, Renee. He joined that church because some said he wasn't black enough. Now he feels that he has become the black candidate in the race, and that's not what he wanted.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much. NPR news analyst, Juan Williams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.