Barack Obama on Tuesday called for an end to the “racial stalemate” that he said the US had been locked in for years as he sought to stem the fallout from divisive comments made by his African-American pastor.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
In one of the most high-profile speeches of his presidential campaign, the Illinois senator condemned the Rev Jeremiah Wright for a series of inflammatory remarks made in sermons at the church he has attended for the past 20 years.
But he refused to disown the pastor, who presided over his wedding and baptised his children, and said Americans must try harder to understand the root causes of resentment between blacks and whites if the US were to move beyond its history of racial division.
“The anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races,” he said.
The speech marked Mr Obama’s most direct confrontation on racial issues since launching his bid to become the first African-American US president, drawing comparisons with John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech about his Catholic faith during the 1960 presidential election. It was scheduled at short notice after the controversy surrounding Mr Wright attracted widespread media attention.
Video clips circulated on the internet have shown Mr Wright blaming the US for bringing the September 2001 terrorist attacks upon itself, accusing the government of encouraging the spread of Aids among black people and labelling white Americans as racist.
As the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Mr Obama has worked hard to transcend traditional racial divisions in US politics by appealing to white voters while maintaining the loyalty of African-Americans. Mr Wright’s comments threaten to undermine those efforts and push some white voters towards Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, or John McCain, the Republican candidate.
The furore is the latest in a series of racially-charged controversies that have sullied the increasingly bitter race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr Obama has insisted he did not attend any of the sermons shown in the videos and was not aware of the comments until they were reported in the media.
He said Mr Wright had “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – 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”. But the senator has vowed to remain part of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Mr Wright preached until his recent retirement, and said that, while his comments were “inexcusable”, the pastor would always be “like family to me”.
“The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor,” said Mr Obama. “He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.”
The US must move beyond the angry rhetoric that often passes for debate on racial issues and address the inequalities and prejudice that divides blacks and whites, said Mr Obama. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore.”