Barack Obama set out to deal with an explosive political problem and wound up lifting the national debate on race to a higher ground. ¶ In an extraordinary moment in presidential politics, Obama tried to put behind him the inflammatory ravings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his pastor and spiritual adviser for 20 years. But in his speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, he went beyond damage control and challenged the nation to break the ''stalemate'' on race and try to better understand the anger and resentment on both sides of the racial divide. Just as whites need to recognize the lingering problem of racism, he said, blacks should try to understand the resentment of white Americans over affirmative action, busing, crime and "other legitimate concerns.''
Finally, race is out in the open in this campaign. And who better to lead a national conversation on the subject than the man poised to become the first African-American nominated for president by a major political party. Obama has spoken in his campaign of "transcending'' race, and his remarkable political rise suggests that many voters see his historic candidacy as a way to begin coming to terms with the complexities of race in American life.
We will know soon enough whether the Philadelphia speech has defused the issue politically. Many voters find it difficult to understand how Obama could embrace a minister known for his toxic rhetoric, a man who preached in 2003 that blacks should sing "God damn America'' instead of "God bless America.'' Who, after the 9/11 attacks, said, "America's chickens are coming home to roost.'' Such rants make even Obama supporters cringe.
Obama again condemned the message but not the messenger, an "imperfect man'' who is "like family to me.'' He explained that "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community'' or his own white grandmother — "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 on the street . . .''
He said his former pastor's rage "expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what's wrong with America above all that we know is right with America. . . . The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress has been made.''
In the America savaged by the Rev. Wright, Barack Obama could never have come this far on the road to the White House.
If he becomes the Democratic nominee, Obama must know he is likely to pay a political price for his relationship with the Rev. Wright, now retired. However his political journey ends, Obama's candidacy and his Philadelphia speech have moved the nation closer to facing the racial divisions and distrust that continue to hold back both races.
Win or lose, he already has found his place in history.