Obama’s speech on race draws diverse local reactions

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
REUTERS/Tim Shaffer
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Like it or not, Barack Obama’s “Philadelphia speech” on Tuesday seems destined to go down in history. Like Hubert Humphrey, who gave his famous “bright sunshine of civil rights” speech in the same city 60 years earlier, Obama forcefully confronted race in an America not entirely ready to listen – but unlike Humphrey, he was doing it from a defensive crouch.

Obama had been forced onto the flag-bedecked stage by the comments of the man who brought him to Jesus, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s no-holds-barred indictment of America’s power structure – and the whites tied up in it – had undercut Obama’s message of unifying hope.

We asked a diverse group of locals whether they thought Obama had made it to high ground and perhaps even advanced Americans’ long-sputtering racial conciliation.

State Rep. Paul Gardner, DFL-Shoreview 

Paul Gardner
Paul Gardner

State Rep. Paul Gardner, a first-term DFLer from Shoreview, generally agreed with the thrust of Obama’s speech. “He’s got the guts and knowledge on how to get a meaningful dialogue going on race in America,” Gardner said in a written response to MinnPost.

Gardner’s 53A House district is considered a swing district. In 2006, he defeated incumbent Republican Phil Krinkie, a conservative. Gardner’s north suburban district is almost 95 percent white, with a median income of almost $74,000 and more than 25 percent of adults holding college degrees. In 2006, the district favored DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar by 54 percent and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty by 53 percent.

Asked to respond to Obama’s speech, Gardner said:

“We will not get beyond race in this country until there is a recognition by all Americans that there are still vestiges of implicit prejudice in American society. Unfortunately most people do not realize that they are still there. The legal barriers to equality have been knocked down with Brown v. Board of Education [the Supreme Court case that reversed the separate-but-equal doctrine], the integration of the U.S. military in the late1940s, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  (In my home state of Virginia, we had a poll tax up to 1964.)

“But one of the biggest barriers still left includes the lack of intergenerational transfer of wealth. So many professions and universities were closed to African-Americans up until a generation ago that many African-Americans haven’t been able to pass along the same kind of assets … that my family had to put me in a private college and help me build a secure economic future.”

Gardner offered examples:

“Woodrow Wilson, a progressive, purged the civil service of African-Americans almost 100 years ago. But I had it made almost 100 years ago because my ancestors had good jobs with no barriers and therefore built financial assets to pass along to the next generation.

“Look also at the process of redlining — when realtors and bankers colluded to keep African-Americans and others in certain neighborhoods. … The process is now illegal, but some of the subprime lenders out there targeted communities of color who had few assets and foreclosures are high in these communities. …

“African-Americans have built a lot of distrust towards our government and financial institutions.  So we have a lot of work to do to pull the nation together. A helpful effort on this was Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS series ‘African-American Lives II.’  Another is Barack Obama.”

— Robert Whereatt

Don Samuels, Minneapolis City Council member 

Don Samuels
Don Samuels

Don Samuels was extremely nervous as he began watching Barrack Obama’s speech on race Tuesday morning.

“Oh no, don’t do this,”‘ the second-term Minneapolis City Council member said he was thinking. “There’s too much risk. There’s a reason theologians don’t talk about this. There’s a reason politicians are afraid of it.

“It was as if he was standing at a table filled with jars of highly explosive materials, and any one of them can explode at any moment. He’d pick up one jar and then another. He was saying, ‘We can handle these materials. They won’t kill us if we talk about them.’ “

Samuels, who is Jamaican-American, can relate to Obama in very personal terms. It’s been said of Samuels that “he’s not black enough.” Old civil rights activists have said the council member can’t understand the anger of black kids in Minneapolis neighborhoods.

“When he made his strong disapproval of the statements of Rev. Wright, I was thinking, ‘Don’t say that — you will alienate civil rights leaders.’ But he was able to articulate his anger at those statements and embrace the man at the same time. He was able to point out that this is an imperfect man, but that there is context for that imperfection.

“Then, he was able to bring it back to his grandmother. He outed his grandma, but he also embraced her. He did not spare any of us. I thought it was tremendously courageous for a man with just a marginal lead in the race to take on the most divisive issue in America. I don’t know anyone else who could have done that.”

Hours after the speech, Samuels was still marveling at what he heard. “I sit here thinking, ‘He did it,’ ” said Samuels. “Oh my God, he did it.”

But Samuels is anxious, too.

“There’s still a risk,”‘ Samuels said. “There are some who will try to find some little thing that they can take out of context and play that up. I just hope most take the time to hear what he said. I don’t think we should move beyond race. Too many voices need to be heard.

“But he wasn’t saying we need to move beyond race. He was saying we need to move through it, and along the way we need to acknowledge each other and still love each other.”

 – Doug Grow

Jerry McAfee, Minneapolis pastor 

Jerry McAfee
Jerry McAfee

Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, frequently sees things differently from Samuels. As the campaign has progressed, McAfee has had increasing concerns about Obama. Too often, McAfee believed, Obama was compromising his blackness to appeal to white America.

“He didn’t come to the national Baptist convention in Atlanta in January,” McAfee said. “You’re talking about an organization that represents 10 million people. Hillary showed up. Barack didn’t.”

McAfee’s concerns increased last week when Obama repudiated the statements of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“When this came up with Jeremiah and there was only the repudiation, my feeling was, ‘Barack you can go to hell.’ You can’t deny the reality that 75 percent of us feel this way. That we feel the anger that Jeremiah Wright was expressing. The thing that people don’t understand about Jeremiah Wright is that he’s one of the more liberal pastors you will see. He has done wonderful things, out of love, for the people of Chicago. He’s no hate-monger. But what he was saying was just biblical. When America does some of the things that it does, yes, God will damn America.”

But McAfee heard balance in Tuesday’s speech that he hadn’t heard in the earlier comments about Wright.

“I needed to hear that he still embraces Jeremiah,”‘ McAfee said. “And when he talked about his grandma, I could understand that. All of us have relatives who do or say things that we repudiate, but we still love them. The balance in his speech was what was important. I’ve always believed that if we could all slow down, black and white, and talk we could heal. We are commanded to in the Bible. We are commanded to love, and it has nothing to do with our skin color. I tell the people in my congregation, ‘Don’t glorify in your skin color. Don’t be like the white folks. Blackness doesn’t make you better.’ ”

Because of the speech, McAfee has more hope for Obama than he’s had in some time.

– Doug Grow

Beverly Aplikowski, former Arden Hills mayor

Beverly Aplikowski
Beverly Aplikowski

Beverly Aplikowski doesn’t intend to vote for Barak Obama, but she allowed, after hearing his speech on race, that he has a gift.

“The remarkable thing is he has such a wonderful way with words, a steady, even elocution,” the former Arden Hills mayor began in her own melodic tones. It was only later that this Republican criticized the candidate for offering up more “fluff” and “feel-good words” than substance and not giving America its due. 

Obama’s speech covered a lot of territory, she said, going back to the days of slavery and to the anger of black people in the 1950s and 1960s that still permeates society in some areas. “But when it came to how many people rose above it, he only talked about himself and his wife, how they succeeded and that they could do it in no other country but America.

“That was the disappointing thing. I think he centered on the fact black people were victimized,” Aplikowski said. “He left me thinking we only just discriminate against blacks and minorities, that we don’t offer them opportunities.” That’s not true, she said.  Very few people in the world have the opportunities Americans do, she said.

Anybody who lives off the resources of this country has no right to “damn America,” as Obama’s pastor did and as many college and university professors do, said Aplikowski, 72, the owner of a manufactured homes community. “We can’t move beyond issues of race as long as people in America with public pulpits don’t recognize the opportunity and freedoms we have.”

Will this election affect how Americans perceive race? “I’m not sure this election is going to do anything for it,” said the former mayor, a veteran of 14 years in political office, including 10 as a council member. “American people have three very different choices: race, gender and service. I don’t know that whoever wins is going to bring us together as a country.”

Still, she’ll vote for John McCain.

– Cynthia Boyd

Abdul-Rahman Magba-Kamara, chairman of the University of Minnesota College Republicans 

Abdul-Rahman Magba-Kamara
Abdul-Rahman Magba-Kamara

Like Obama, Abdul-Rahman Magba-Kamara is half black and half white; unlike Obama, he’s chairman of the University of Minnesota College Republicans.

Magaba-Kamara downplays the speech as “a typical response to a politician that is backpedaling.”

He said he believes Obama sent a mixed message about Wright that weakened the speech’s moral authority: “On the one hand, Obama says, ‘I have already condemned in unequivocal terms the statements of Reverend Wright’ … however, he goes on to explain how great the man is. I felt ‘duped’ by Obama’s claim that even though Rev. Wright has made a few controversial claims while he was in attendance that he had never heard him speak with the same racist attitude that he did in those sermons.”

Asked how we’ll get beyond the racial stalemate Obama decried, Magaba-Kamara says: “Well, you definitely do not do it following [his] policies. Obama will only strengthen the schism between the so-called ‘black’ community and the ‘white’ community by justifying the actions of blacks based on the fact that they were discriminated against in the early 50s and 60s.

“I think of myself as a man in the United States of America who some people will like and who some people will not like for numerous reasons, and not just race. You can’t always find a reason why people do not like you. Just deal with it and move on. The only way to move past the racial stalemate is to stop being so racially motivated.”

— David Brauer

Peter Bell, Metropolitan Council chair 

Peter Bell
Peter Bell

Peter Bell, chair of the Metropolitan Council, said he was moved by Obama’s speech, and that he was impressed by the senator’s courage, insight and understanding. But Bell said he’s not optimistic that the nation can move beyond race — and certainly not in this year’s presidential campaign.

“I think this campaign is going to be fought over the Reagan Democrats,” Bell said, referring to older white voters in industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people “who may have been able to vote for a man who happened to be black, but probably wouldn’t support a black man.”

For many of those people, comments made by the Rev. Wright turned Obama into someone they might think of as black in a negative way, Bell suggested. Obama, unlike the Rev. Jesse Jackson, wanted to be seen as a presidential candidate who was incidentally black, much in the way that John Kennedy in 1960 was seen as incidentally Catholic, Bell said. “For a lot of whites, he was the kind of black college roommate they always wish they had but never did,” he said.

Then people found out what kind of a church he belonged to and the association he had had with the Rev. Wright for so many years. And now, in the speech, Obama acknowledged that he had heard these kinds of things from the Rev. Wright before.

“He seems to want it both ways,” Bell said of Obama. “He says that race is a distraction from big issues like the war and the economy. Then, in the next breath, he says race is a fundamental issue. He wants to be both above race and yet heal the racial wounds of the country, and he wants to do that as someone other than a black man.”

Bell’s suspicion is that Obama was raised in a white world and came to terms with that, but later, perhaps after college, got involved in the black world on the south side of Chicago as part of a search for identity.

Bell, a Republican, finds less fault with Obama’s “courageous and genuine attempt to tackle the race issue” than his policy views. Schools and health care are important, Bell said. But the idea that government programs hold the key to solving the problems of African-Americans is simply wrong. “I wish his emphasis would have been far more on urging African-Americans to look inward,” he said, much as Bill Cosby has done. “If the fate of African-Americans rests on what the government can do for us,” Bell said, “then we’re in deep trouble.”

—Steve Berg

Sean Kershaw, Citizens League head 

Sean Kershaw
Sean Kershaw

Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League, was astonished by the speech’s honesty.

“He was revealing things that folks say when they’re having dinner or they’re at church and the doors are closed — certainly not from a presidential candidate,” Kershaw said. “I envision, if we were viewing the living rooms of people listening to the speech, a sort of ‘Oh no, he didn’t say that’ reaction.”

In Kershaw’s opinion, the most valuable thing the speech could do is to open a dialogue. “One of the great things about the speech is not that it allows us to move beyond the issue of race, but that it creates the opportunity to have a conversation about race,” he said. “It’s going to be 50 years before we move beyond it. But I think part of the reason that people have responded to him and to McCain and to parts of Hillary’s campaign is that they are wanting a better conversation. This is an issue that we desperately need a conversation on.”

People shouldn’t underestimate the value of that conversation, Kershaw added. “I’m a gay man in an interracial relationship, my sister is a fundamentalist Christian who has said things about my life that I had every reason to write her off for,” he explained. “But what we did was stick together and eventually, after years, turn it into a conversation. We’ve got a great relationship because we’ve been able to talk through things.”

For Kershaw, that possibility for dialogue gives the speech ramifications beyond race. “It was also a really good text on what democracy is,” he said. “For him to begin with ‘In order to form a more perfect union,’ I mean, that’s the premise of democracy over socialism or totalitarianism; it’s not that we’ve got it right, but we hopefully have a system for making it better.

“Democracy is an argument and we’ve forgotten how to argue, so we turn the conversation over to Rush Limbaugh on one side and over to Bill Maher on the other,” Kershaw said. “And there’s something about this speech that invites people to get back into that argument, but not make it about your mother. That’s what campaigns should be about.”

– Beth Hawkins

Joyce Yamamoto, Minneapolis YWCA 

Joyce Yamamoto
Joyce Yamamoto

Joyce Yamamoto is director of racial justice and public policy at the YWCA of Minneapolis. A Japanese-American, she, too, was impressed by the speech’s honesty.

“I love that he said that people in the African-American community do at times feel anger and frustration at racism in America — and at the same time, they love America,” she said. “We live in this country, we love this country, and at the same time there are things that drive us batty.”

Yamamoto was particularly struck by the way Obama addressed controversy surrounding his relationship with the Rev. Wright. “Despite the fact that he disagrees with what Wright says, he loves him, and he respects him and stands by him as a man of faith who taught him,” she said. “I respect Obama for speaking the truth and for speaking a complex answer when the machine was expecting him to give a simple answer.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 03/19/2008 - 11:33 am.

    I thought it was one of the greatest political speeches I’ve heard in years. It probably is in my top 20 speeches of all times. He moved the debate forward instead of dwelling on the comments by Rev. Wright. He made it personal, he talked about black anger and he talked about WHITE anger, which is real should have resonated with anybody but a Rush Limbaugh Dittohead or a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He gained points with African Americans and white union workers who have felt that someone else was given something over them.

    And it was politically clever and shrewd. He brought up his WHITE grandmother and her racial slurs. Anyone listening could have thought how would he/she feel if your OWN grandmother used a racial slur and you were a member of that racial group.

    More importantly it was right.

    As someone who was born in South Carolina while my parents taught in a tense time of racial integration, I am just very pleased that someone is talking about race. It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It may not even be “real” according to anthropologists, but in America it is an underlying current to almost everything we deal with.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 03/19/2008 - 02:46 pm.

    I am sure that there are many people out there who cannot relate to Obama’s situation. They are quick to judge him saying: “Why hasn’t he spoken out against Reverend Wright sooner? And why doesn’t he wear a flag pin on his lapel? etc., etc.”

    One cannot always explain or denounce one’s friends at the drop of a hat? In this instance, I think we should give him some slack because he shows he does not rush to judge and later explain. I think he is thoughtful and deliberative in his actions.

    As for issues of patriotism, Obama’s critics haven’t even stopped to verify if these flags and pins are being made in China. Actions are more important than symbols. There are many who are waving the flag, but would not even step up if they were called up for service.

    To conclude, I think Obama has done much more to mend an intolerable situation than George W Bush ever did in 2000 when he was courting the favors of a racist institution in South Carolina. Did anybody, especially the media, ever raise doubts about Mr. Bush’s character back then?

    Thank you.

    Henock Gugsa

  3. Submitted by Anne White on 03/19/2008 - 02:47 pm.

    I think the important thing Obama did in his speech was to invite Americans to begin engaging in a real, adult conversation about how we can build bridges between the races and work together on common goals for a better America. To do so, we must acknowledge the fears, concerns and anger of everyone who’s struggling to make a better life, whether they be black, white, Asian, Latino or native American.

    The media is in a powerful position to help determine how this conversation goes forward. Like it or not, the news programs, talk shows, newspapers and blogs can have an important influence on how broadly or narrowly the public engages with the issues raised by Obama in his speech.

    I hope that MinnPost will take the lead in moving beyond the question of whether people think Obama “made it to high ground and perhaps even advanced Americans’ long-sputtering racial conciliation.” Why not ask community leaders for ideas on how we can take on the challenges identified by Obama in his speech, and move ahead here in Minnesota? What research, discussions, actions are needed? How can we engage more people of all ages and backgrounds in this conversation?How about a statewide discussion and essay contest for high school students?

    Let’s not miss this opportunity to move forward on the tough issues of race and religion that Obama invited us to address head-on. Let’s not fall back into the horse-race reporting that focuses primarily on how well Obama did in rescuing his campaign from the damage done by his long association with the Reverend Wright.

    Not this time… Sieze the moment, MinnPost. Let’s raise the level of campaign reporting by expanding the public debate on the important issues of our time, including those that are most difficult.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/19/2008 - 03:14 pm.

    To me, Obama went beyond race to other sources of division, most particularly the arrogance that leads George Bush and others to say “we do not talk to terrorists” and Senator Clinton and others to call Obama “naive” because he would talk to Iran and Hamas.

    An Obama presidency would not, of course, be perfect (no presidency is), but he would treat other leaders with respect and listen to their concerns instead of demonizing or ridiculing them or invading their countries for made-up reasons. That’s close enough to perfect for me.

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