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Obama: U.S. Can't Afford to Ignore Race Issues

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Plenty of presidential candidates deliver what they consider a major speech. Few of those speeches have drawn quite so much attention as Barack Obama's did yesterday. The man seeking to become the first black president spoke about race in America. Didn't have much choice - Obama's former pastor was under assault by videotape.

The pastor's old sermons damned America and attacked the U.S. government for racism, which raised questions about Obama's views. In Philadelphia yesterday Obama delivered his answer, and NPR's David Greene was listening.

DAVID GREENE: Barack Obama said there have been Sundays when he sat in a pew at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and disagreed with his pastor's political views. But Obama said the soundbites of Reverend Jeremiah Wright all over the airwaves the past few days have been different. They've shown Wright condemning white America, lashing out at Israel or at Hillary Clinton.

The news clips have been short, many of them are old, but Obama said people have a right to be offended.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): There weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country, a view that sees white racism as endemic.

GREENE: And for Obama that view is problematic. If racism is endemic, Obama's goal to be a president who can unify seems all but impossible. But Obama's speech was not an outright denunciation. Obama said Wright is like family. He performed his marriage and baptized his daughters, and, Obama says, Wright reached out to the neediest people in the streets of Chicago. He was an embodiment, Obama says, of the contradictions in Chicago's black community, at once full of compassion but also bitterness and bias.

Sen. OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion have uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

GREENE: Obama said the issue of race can't be ignored. It would be easy, he said, to just dismiss Wright as a demagogue. But he said that would be repeating the mistake Wright made himself in some of those sermons, playing to stereotypes and losing sight of the real challenges.

Sen. OBAMA: We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his politics. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election we'll be talking about some other distraction.

GREENE: Obama said it's time to turn attention back to real issues. As this long campaign goes on, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has made the same commitment.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Got a transcript in front of me here. You can read or hear Barack Obama's speech at NPR.org/elections. 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.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.