Race has moved to centre stage in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“For nearly a week,” notes the New York Times, “Mr Obama has struggled to distance himself from a series of controversial statements by his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah A Wright Jr, who characterized the United States as fundamentally racist and the government as corrupt and murderous.” 

But in a speech to the National Constitution Centre, Obama confronted the dual issues of race and unity, saying “the country has a choice: It can continue to argue over race as a distraction, or ‘at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, Not this time’.” (Click the image below to watch the full speech.)

The performance prompted the following response from Hillary Clinton:

Issues of race and gender in America have been complicated throughout our history, and they are complicated in this primary campaign. There have been detours and pitfalls along the way, but we should remember that this is a historic moment for the Democratic Party and for our country. We will be nominating the first African-American or woman for the presidency of the United States, and that is something that all Americans can and should celebrate.

It also prompted some sparkling reviews from the punditariat.

A bright shining moment. Today we saw and heard a preview of our brightest possible American future in Senator Barack Obama’s glorious speech. This, then, is what it means to be presidential. To be moral. To have a real center. To speak honestly, from the heart, for the benefit of all. If there was any doubt about what we have missed in the anti-intellectual, ruthlessly incurious Bush years, and even the slippery Clinton ones (the years of “what is is”), those doubts were laid to rest by Barack Obama’s magisterial speech today. – John Robin Baitz, Huffington Post

One for the ages. [Obama] could have thrown Jeremiah Wright under the bus, denouncing him without equivocation. He could have dredged up offensive comments made by supporters of Hillary Clinton, arguing – as Clinton probably would have if the roles had been reversed – that people on both sides had said things they regret. He could have tried any number of simplistic devices to change the subject. But instead, he delivered an impassioned and sophisticated call for his country to move forward – one in which he didn’t stop at condemning Wright’s angry view of America, but bravely sought to explain it. — Adam Radwanski, Globe and Mail

A teaching moment. The Illinois senator recognized that the media-driven dialogue about sermons delivered by Wright had little to do with the content of the pastor’s words and everything to do with the color of the pastor’s — and the candidate’s — skin. So Obama seized the opportunity to open up a dialogue about the role of race in America, turning a political challenge into what the late Paul Wellstone referred to as “a teaching moment.” — The Nation

Wright, race, and the post-racial campaign. He challenged white voters to better understand the roots of black anger. He challenged black voters to move beyond their sometimes “shocking ignorance.” All told, Obama sought in his ambitious address to deliver tough love to both sides of the racial divide, while simultaneously trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature. I know that the Robert Kennedy analogies have gotten a heavy workout in recent months; this speech, however, was an RFK classic, and I’m old enough to remember that ’68 campaign. — Dick Polman

Great speech, but… I can’t help but think of the familiar complaint that Obama’s rhetoric is wonderful–but the specifics of the change he promises are fuzzier. In an entire speech about race in America, Obama never so much as mentioned affirmative action. He laments the state of our disgraceful public school system–yet his own platform doesn’t promise the kind of revolutionary (and expensive) overhaul that system requires. Making decisions about the allocation of resources is where things get really tricky, but Obama steered away from those questions. — Michael Crowley,  The New Republic

Peter Fray

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