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Obama and Ozawa

Jerry Kang / Special to The National Law Journal
March 31, 2008

Next to his 2004 convention speech, Barack Obama’s speech on race was his most important. It was the most honest and complex analysis of race made by a candidate seeking political office I have ever heard. He did what he needed to do — meet head-on the hardest criticisms, with substance, context, humility and analytical clarity. 

As a legal academic who studies race, I was delighted to see Obama reject simplistic tales. He discussed both individual and structural causes of how things came to be. In other words, he spoke of individual choices (both good and bad) but reminded folks that they are always made within a historically and materially situated menu of options. He rejected demonizing one side as racists and making virtuous victims of the other, and instead identified core similarities and basic human needs. He spoke of the young white woman, Ashley, and the elderly black man who realized that he was working beside her on the campaign “because of Ashley.” 

The greatest challenge, of course, was addressing Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor who spewed fire and brimstone against American racism. Obama once again denounced these comments, but still refused to disown him. As Obama explained, it would be like disowning the black community or his white grandmother, in all their complexity and imperfection.

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