News Release: Politics

Mar. 20,  2008

Obama Strikes Delicate Balance on Race

Barack Obama had to deliver the speech on race in Philadelphia. Given the firestorm of controversy generated over both Geraldine Ferraro and Jeremiah Wright's comments, ignoring racial issues could have magnified those issues in the minds of voters, permanently crippling Obama's campaign, says Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie.

While Obama had to deliver the racial address, he also had to maintain a delicate balance in his speech. His comments were primarily directed toward white voters, who were less familiar with both the racialized side of Obama and the underlying sentiments in Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric. He had to convince this constituency that despite Wright's inflammatory rhetoric, he was firmly committed to multiracial politics. However, he could not completely disown Wright, lest blacks accuse him of sacrificing Wright to advance his political career.

Overall, Obama did as good a job as any trying to please his polyglot constituency in this speech. Many people have said in the past couple of days that Tuesday's speech is one of the defining points of this presidential contest because it was a beautifully crafted exegesis on the status of race relations in this country. However, that speech was pivotal because a part of Barack Obama can never be deracialized again.

On the whole, Barack Obama is still the candidate who many white voters will feel comfortable with because he does not assume the posture of the stereotypically angry black person. But now, everyone knows that he understands the origin of that anger, even if he does not personally subscribe to those sentiments. Any voter who blindly supported Obama because they saw him as the perfect antidote to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton now has more data points to consider.

Just because Obama is now more complex does not mean that white voters should abandon their support for Obama. He is clearly committed to inclusivity, even if he is sometimes critical of white privilege. The larger question is, will some whites be uncomfortable with the prospects of a black president who is occasionally critical of white privilege and powerful enough to level the playing field?

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