There’s never a good time for race to become the dominate news story surrounding Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency. But it would have been far better for the Democratic front runner if the topic had come to a boil several weeks ago. That’s because there’s a long lull between now and the Pennsylvania primary on April 22nd, and there’s a lot of political reporters with little to fill up the hours and pages between now and then. Thanks to his personal pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, however, race is driving the news cycle and Senator Obama had no choice but to confront it head on.
As might be expected, Senator Obama’s speech in Philadelphia, was eloquent and moving. It was, perhaps, the most direct discussion of race by a major presidential candidate in decades. He addressed virtually every racial issue to be raised in this campaign. From Geraldine Ferraro’s remarks that seemed to imply the Obama candidacy is “somehow an exercise in affirmative action.” And he repudiated several comments by Reverend Wright.
There will be many comparisons to Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race to then Senator John Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 on religion. And it will stand up well to the comparison.
What’s unfortunate about all this is that the last thing Senator Obama needs is to be perceived as the Black candidate for president. He has spent too much time developing the deserved image of the candidate for change and hope. Yet the danger is that the narrative of his campaign is rapidly becoming that of his race and not his ideas. This will distract from his gaining ground on Senator Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. He needs those voters focused on his ideals and his ideas, not the color of his skin. In those states where he’s been successful in that goal he’s done well. If the focus is on his race, however, he is in danger of having the election serve as a referendum on something other than his fitness for office.
Hopefully, people will listen to the speech. Hopefully, they’ll learn from it. And hopefully, political reporters and pundits will find more to talk about — perhaps even dealing with legitimate issues. Race will continue to be a part of this campaign for so long as an African American is a part of the election. But it would be nice if it wasn’t the primary topic of conversation and was, instead, just something noted, appreciated and then moved beyond.