Blacks wrestle with Obama-Wright rift
Many understand, but some may doubt Obama's 'blackness.'
Jae C. Hong/AP
In disowning his former pastor Tuesday, a month after saying he could never do so, Sen. Barack Obama walked a very fine line: He had to renounce a prominent black preacher who had become a political problem without alienating African-American voters, a bedrock of his support, for whom churches are often a center of community life.
Senator Obama's break with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. – who officiated at his wedding and baptized his two daughters – could turn off some poorer and older, civil rights-era blacks who may already wonder about Obama's ability to identify with their lives, say experts in black politics and some black voters.
But younger and more affluent blacks say that whether or not they agree with Mr. Wright, they see the rupture as a political necessity for a man seeking to become the first African-American president.
"I felt like what he did today, he had to do," Timothy Perry, a project manager at Reliant Energy in Houston who is an Obama supporter, said Tuesday in a phone interview. "You have a limb that's rotting and you've got to cut it off."
But Michael Durrah, a third-shift security guard at a Washington hotel, says Obama has more explaining to do.
"Your pastor is your No. 1 man in the neighborhood," says Mr. Durrah, a Democrat who says neither Obama nor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had inspired him enough to vote in the District of Columbia primary.
"But Obama stepped backwards on" Wright, Durrah said early Wednesday on his walk home from work. "I'm wondering why he's cutting ties with the man."
In remarks in North Carolina Tuesday, Obama offered an unsparing repudiation of Wright, a fiery, erudite preacher who is retiring this year from the 8,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side.
"What Reverend Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything I've done during my life," Obama said at the news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. Obama was responding to Wright's defiant appearance at the National Press Club here Monday. The Chicago pastor defended his plea that "God damn America," his claim that the government is capable of creating HIV to kill people of color, and other comments that critics have called unpatriotic and racially incendiary.
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," said Obama. "That's enough," he added, calling Wright's remarks a "bunch of rants."
"Obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequences of this."
Some see the renunciation as helping Obama with the working-class white voters he has struggled to attract. But it could soften support among African-Americans, prompting some to stay home in the general election if it helps crystallize a picture of him as out of touch, analysts say.
Blacks have been Obama's staunchest supporters, voting for him in some states by margins as high as 9 to 1. The North Carolina primary Tuesday is the last contest where a large percentage of Democratic voters – some 38 percent – are black. But analysts say any political fallout among African-Americans is more likely to be seen in November.
"This split is basically going to be by class," says Christopher Parker, a University of Washington professor who studies African-American politics. "The more-educated and higher-income African-Americans will see Wright for what he is – he's angry and he wants his 15 minutes of fame extended into a half hour. For the black folks who are working-class or below, they might be a little angry with Barack because they feel that within the black church, Wright is speaking the truth."
Obama was a young community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s when he met Wright. The Illinois senator has credited the pastor with inspiring his Christian faith and the title of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope."
Obama's remarks Tuesday were a marked shift from his wide-ranging speech on race in Philadelphia on March 18. He distanced himself then from some of Wright's more inflammatory remarks but asked Americans to see the pastor as a member of an older generation of blacks stung by firsthand experiences of hate and segregation. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama had said.
Many African-Americans will understand Obama's breach with Wright as a political inevitability, says Kenneth Edmonds, publisher of The Carolina Times, an African-American newspaper in Durham, N.C. "They will look and say, 'This is what he has to do,' " Mr. Edmonds says. "African-Americans understand that when you go out and deal with white America, you have to be prepared to treat them in a certain way to make sure they are comfortable.... This is a part of life being an African-American."
Several black preachers were reluctant to talk about the impact of the break between Obama and Wright. For many, the controversy had at least offered the opportunity to raise awareness among Americans of the black church. Some hoped it might stimulate difficult if unsettling conversations about race. But Wright's appearance at the National Press Club and Obama's disavowal of him may set back such hopes.