Reacting to Obama's words

The Baltimore Sun

The speech Sen. Barack Obama delivered Tuesday morning has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on YouTube and is being widely e-mailed. While commentators and politicians debate its political success, some around the country were responding to Obama's call for a national conversation about race.

Religious groups and academic bodies, already receptive to Obama's plea for such a dialogue, seemed especially enthusiastic. Universities were moving to incorporate the issues Obama raised into classroom discussions and coursework, and churches were trying to find ways to do the same in sermons and Bible studies.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of a mostly white evangelical church of about 12,000 in central Florida, described Obama's speech, in which the Democratic presidential candidate discussed his relationship with the pastor of his home church in Chicago, as a kind of "Rorschach inkblot test" for the nation.

"It calls out of you what is already in you," Hunter said, predicting that those desiring to address the topic would regard the speech as a spur, while those indifferent to issues of race might pay it little heed.

Hunter said the Obama speech led to a series of conversations yesterday morning with his staff members. "We want for there to be healing and reconciliation, but unless it's raised in a very public manner, it's tough for us in our regular conversation to raise it," he said.

The Obama speech was also a topic of discussion yesterday at the Washington office of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy and social welfare group. Hispanics can be white, black or of mixed race. "The cynics are going to say this was an effort only to deal with the Rev. Wright issue and move on," said Janet Murguia, president of La Raza, referring to the political fallout over remarks by Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which prompted Obama to deliver the speech.

But Murguia said she hoped that Obama's speech would help "create a safe space to talk about this, where people aren't threatened or pigeonholed" and "can talk more openly and honestly about the tensions, both overt and as an undercurrent, that exist around race and racial politics."

On the Internet and in many areas of the traditional news media, such a discussion was already taking shape. Some 4 million people watched Obama's speech live and it is now the top YouTube video.

The speech has stimulated passionate discussion on scores of blogs of varying ideological tendencies, and an article about the speech in The New York Times has provoked more than 2,250 comments.

On the ABC talk show The View yesterday morning, the co-hosts discussed the substance of Obama's speech and its impact on the presidential campaign. "Finally we can talk about" race "without being afraid we are offending" others, one co-host, Barbara Walters, said, while Whoopi Goldberg said she "felt he was talking about stuff that we tiptoe around."

Some conservative commentators, including Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, found positive elements in the Obama speech, which O'Reilly called "a mixed deal." He criticized Obama for not repudiating Wright's views in stronger terms but also said Obama "was right that race remains an unresolved problem in America on both sides."

There have been other efforts to stimulate a national dialogue on race. A commission on race relations was appointed in 1997 by President Bill Clinton with the historian John Hope Franklin as chairman. But that effort produced few concrete advances and those who said they had been inspired by Obama's speech said a different approach was needed.

"This has got to be more than a speech because these things don't just happen spontaneously," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun and a founder of the Coalition of Spiritual Progressives.

"There needs to be some systematic, organizational commitment to making this happen, with churches, synagogues and mosques working out a plan for continued dialogue," Lerner said.

For some, the timing of Obama's speech was awkward. Spring break at many universities foreclosed the possibility of immediate discussions in classes and informal settings and many churches are locked into traditional Easter services.

Nevertheless, said the Rev. Troy Benton, lead pastor at a church in Stone Mountain, Ga., near Atlanta, "I don't see how you can be an African-American preacher and not try to figure out how to have something to say this Sunday, even though it's Easter."

Around the country, ministers of the United Church of Christ, which is Obama's denomination, are recommending in Holy Week newsletters that their congregants read or view Obama's speech.

One message, sent from the Union Congregational Church in Montclair, N.J., said, "No matter what your party affiliation or your political persuasion, the conversations about race that has been elicited by the campaign are important."

The message also cited a brief prayer, "Lord, help me to remember we are all your children," and expressed the hope that "we take the high road" in addressing the issue.

Tufts University was on break this week, but Jennifer Bailey, a student there and the president of a group called Emerging Black Leaders, said that when she returned to classes next week, she hoped to encourage a frank discussion about race that would involve all of the many racial and ethnic groups and ideological tendencies on her campus.

Obama's speech "called everybody out, and that is absolutely healthy and necessary," Bailey said.

She added, "We need to have some sort of follow-up conversation, even among those groups that do not interact on a daily basis, and this speech has created a space for that. Whether individuals choose to engage is their own choice, but the opportunity is still there."

St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, is in session this week, and at Zak Fisher's speech class yesterday, Obama's speech was discussed and analyzed, both for its content and as an example of persuasive and eloquent public discourse.

"We thought it was unprecedented," said Fisher, a philosophy major. "We had never heard a politician be so open to the issue of race.

"It's always very important to question your own beliefs and always re-evaluate where you may stand on issues, based on new evidence."

He added: ''I think that was the point of his speech."

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