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Not so black and white

Obama's extraordinary speech on race captured the subtleties of today's debate.

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Race has been part of Barack Obama's campaign since he declared. But never so much as this week, when he was forced to respond to incendiary remarks by his former pastor. That the topic of racism, which usually resides in shadow, has leapt into the open is healthy for the nation.

But it's oh-so-difficult to look at and handle.

America has marched through centuries of racism with bleeding footsteps. In the more distant past, the choices were clear: Keep slavery, or abolish it? Preserve Jim Crow and legalized segregation, or end it?

Since the civil rights era, though, the choices are more nuanced as lingering racism is more subtle. Affirmative action? The courts and many states are rolling that back. A national conversation on race, à la Bill Clinton in 1997? There was little interest.

Now Mr. Obama, whose campaign was all about transcending race, has had to focus on it. On March 18, he delivered a speech that could have been limited to a full repudiation of his spiritual mentor's anti-American, racially-charged oratory. Yet he took it to another level altogether – peeling back layers of anger and misunderstanding between whites and blacks.

He convincingly rejected Rev. Jeremiah Wright's comments as "wrong" and "divisive," but then explored racism to a depth rarely seen in a presidential campaign. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who in his fireside radio chats asked Americans to get out their maps so he could explain war-front happenings, Obama used this week's speech as a teaching moment about the intricacies of racism.

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