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Obama: U.S. "Cannot Afford to Ignore" Race

(CBS)
From CBS News' John Bentley:

PHILADELPHIA – "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Barack Obama said today, as he delivered one of the most important speeches of his candidacy, confronting the issues of race in presidential politics and his own relationship with a controversial minister, Jeremiah Wright.

"Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity," Obama said, "racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems." Wright has received criticism for comments he's made from the pulpit, such as saying that blacks should condemn America for "treating our citizens as less than human," and that the U.S. brought 9/11 on itself because of its foreign policy.

Obama admitted he heard Wright preach things he did not agree with while he was a member of Wright's church for nearly 20 years. "As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me," Obama said of Wright. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."

While Obama said the black community needed to "embrace the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past," he took the white community to task as well. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street," Obama said. "These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."

He asked the white community to acknowledge the "legacy of discrimination" for African-Americans. "It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams," Obama said. "Investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper."

Saying that America had been stuck in a "racial stalemate" for years, Obama said the country had now come to a crossroads. "We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," he said. "We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies."

If we do that, Obama warned, America would never move past the problems of race. "I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction," he said. "And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change."

Bringing back the issue of race through the lens of his pastor, Obama said he believed the country is ready to change, "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society," Obama said. "It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen – is that America can change."