Sen. Barack Obama accomplished as much as he could to disavow and denounce the inflammatory remarks of his fiery former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Although most editorial editors and TV commentators initially praised the speech for helping to elevate a long-overdue conversation about race in American politics, this speech and attempts by some of his fiercest critics to paint him as the "black candidate" could ultimately cost Obama the presidency.
That's the tragic part of starting a much-needed conversation about race in America.
Race is a difficult topic to approach in American politics because the United States remains a very segregated society. As Obama stated eloquently in his speech, Sunday mornings are some of the most segregated hours in American life. Truth be told, the rest of the week is no better. Blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians retreat to their largely ethnically homogenous communities after work — unless you're one of those lucky ones who lives, as I do, in a culturally and ethnically rich community with the ability to cross lines.
Since Obama made his speech, political analysts and pundits have measured the reaction in two ways: They're conducting surveys to see how Americans would react to both Wright's inflammatory rhetoric and Obama's explanation. Some are also digesting the vitriolic conversations on the 24-hour cable-news shows, the blogosphere and media Web sites to see whether any more nuance could be gleaned through the revelation that Obama might have not gone far enough in disowning his pastor.
Like sex, race spikes up the ratings. (Doubters need only remember two words: Simpson trial.) The media will not go back to celebrity watching or get into the sordid details of our economic woes while this Clinton-Obama drama unfolds with its rich cultural and misogynistic brew. Being one of those talking heads, I have to admit, the incessant conversation about race gave me the worst heartburn since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
On the fifth anniversary of the exhaustive examination of the war in Iraq, do you know what dominated most cable shows, including the shows I am on weekly? Wrights' controversial sermons. Next year, when the American people are crying out for help, please visit a black church. Those preachers will speak to your pain and give you hope to wait another four long years.
Then there are the polls. Sure enough, Obama — who leads in both the popular vote and pledged delegates, attracting young whites, African-Americans and independent-minded voters from all stripes — seems to have lost ground. Independent voters are key targets for both Democrats and Republicans. And if they are having second thoughts or "buyer's remorse," this benefits Sen. John McCain, who has had a penchant for attracting those seasoned voters. Obama may be able to win them back over time — or at least in time for Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana and the other states (and territories) to come.
So, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., killed some 40 years ago on April 4, where do we go from here? Can we have an honest, intelligent and thoughtful conversation on race? Can we start to believe in the goodness of one another and not assume the worst, including in our political leaders? And can we agree that those who exploit race for political or partisan advantage be condemned?
I hope so.
If Obama loses the race for the presidency, I surely hope it's because the American people decide they want an old. wise hand, or someone who has spent more time inside Washington, D.C. Seriously, I would hope the rejection of Obama is not based on the color of his skin or his past association with a down-to-earth, wild-eyed preacher man who was "just like family." I would find it absolutely horrifying that we would hold Obama to a standard that is rarely applied to others. Obama, like McCain and Clinton, is not perfect. While they might not have a pastor called Wright, they surely have been associated with controversial and sometimes unsavory characters.
To overcome this dilemma, Obama needs to shift the debate to the economy, giving us a clear sense of how he will pull us out of this recession. And Obama could also let us know his plans for keeping us safe from terror abroad and here at home. That is the true test of leadership. Can he help all Americans, especially those hurting and worried about losing everything?
Obama is undergoing one of the tests to be president of the United States. But so are we. If America is truly ready to elect its first black or female president of the United States, we will all have a say. For those still willing after this exhaustive week of talking about race in American politics, we owe him our deepest gratitude for putting it on the table.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.