Barack Obama photo

Interview with Terry Moran of ABC News

March 19, 2008

MORAN: So what was your goal with this speech?

OBAMA: You know, what I wanted to do was provide context for not just the controversy that's swirled around my former pastor over the last couple of days, but for a shift in tone that we've been seeing in the campaign, both in the coverage and the comments of both my supporters, Sen. Clinton's.

You could see race bubbling up in a way that was distracting from the issues that I think are so important to America right now. So what I wanted to do was to, rather than try to tamp it down, lift it up and see if maybe that would help clarify where we are as a nation right now on the issues.

MORAN: Given your candidacy, race was bound to bubble up in this campaign at some point. So was this a speech that you always planned to give or knew you had to?

OBAMA: I expected that at some stage we'd have to give it. Now, I'm not sure that we expected that it would come up in the way that it did. But it was unrealistic to anticipate that, during the course of this campaign, if not now then certainly in the general election, that this was not going to be an issue that had to be addressed.

This is a big leap for the country. Even me being the nominee is a big leap and then, obviously, actually being the president is a big leap. And, you know, what I want to do is to make sure that we understand that my campaign is not premised on that, it's not premised on making history, but that, whoever is president, this is always going to be an ongoing issue that we have to struggle with and that, perhaps, I can lend some special insight into it.

But it's nothing that's going to be unique to my presidency. It's been something that presidents throughout our history have or have not dealt with, but it's always been there.

MORAN: Now, things are changing in this campaign. Race is emerging as an issue. In the Mississippi primary, you won 92 percent of the black vote, just 26 percent of the white vote. Given what's happening, do you feel this is a make-or-break moment for your candidacy?

OBAMA: You know, I don't think it's a make-or-break moment. I mean, if you just look at the mathematics and the popular vote of the campaign, we're in a good place.

But one of the things that I've always believed is that this campaign couldn't just be about me, my ambitions, winning a nomination, that the process itself had to reflect the changes I say I'm going to bring about when I'm president.

And I do think this was a moment in the campaign where maybe I rediscovered a core truthfulness to the campaign that sometimes you lose during the course of campaigning. There were times before Texas and Ohio where you're there, and there are these big rallies, and people are yelling and screaming, and having a great time, and you are just -- you're giving your stump, and you've been giving it now for three months, and it becomes a performance, as opposed to really tapping into some of these essential challenges that the country faces in a meaningful and serious way.

And I think this was an opportunity for me to pull back for a second and say, "OK, hold on a second. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? What are the conflicts and contradictions that are preventing us from solving health care or education or these other issues? And what do you really have to say about it? What is it that's specific to you that you have to contribute?"

And so, in that sense, I think it was a good moment for our campaign.

MORAN: Let's talk about Rev. Wright, your former pastor. Some of the things that Rev. Wright has said in those little clips that are making their way around, "God damn America," for example, blaming this country for 9/11, are so troubling, so hurtful to people that they ask legitimately, "What does it tell us about Barack Obama, about his judgment, that he was a member of this man's congregation?"

How do you answer that?

OBAMA: Well, as I said in the speech, this is somebody who'd preached for 30 years, probably three times on a Sunday and multiple times during the week, so we can do the math, but there are a lot of seconds there of talking.

And essentially what's been created is a montage of some very offensive and disturbing language. And I don't excuse it at all; I've condemned it unequivocally.

But the person I know is somebody who, for 20 or 30 years, has been leading one of the pillars of the African-American community on the south side of Chicago as a church of tremendous breadth and depth, its ministries on everything from HIV-AIDS to providing care for the poor to providing day-care services for the community.

It is a member of the United Church of Christ, which is a 99 percent white denomination. And so the church gets visitors constantly from other UCC members. And if you talk to them, they would always tell you that this is a welcoming, diverse church.

So, in that sense, it was a caricature. Now, what I also said was that Rev. Wright is somebody who, for all his good qualities, is somebody that I've had strong disagreements with for a very long time, but he's somebody who helped to introduce me to my Christian faith. He is somebody who married Michelle and I. He baptized our kids.

He was on the brink of retirement during the course of this year when some of these very offensive comments came to light, which isn't to say that I hadn't heard him say controversial things before, things I didn't agree with before, but nothing that was so visceral and incendiary.

And my point, I think, was that you don't disown certainly the church, but you don't even disown a man simply because he says something that you profoundly and deeply disagree with. At least I wasn't in -- that is not something that I would have been comfortable to do. What I can do is condemn the man -- condemn the words, but not condemn the man.

MORAN: Well, let me press you on that. If I went to a church where white supremacy was preached, what would you think of me?

OBAMA: Well, but, see, I disagree with you, though, Terry. That's not what's preached at Trinity. And that, I think, that is an easy equivalence that is not at all what is taking place there.

If you look at the sermons, even the most offensive ones that are at issue, he is condemning white racism, as he defines it, but he is not condemning the white race. He is not suggesting that blacks are superior. What he's saying is, is that this -- that white racism is endemic in the society.

Now, that's something that I disagree with and I said in this speech today. And it's reflective of, I think, an anger and bitterness that is part of the black community's experience. It is a legacy of our past that isn't going away anytime soon. But in each successive generation, it hopefully lessens its grip.

And he has, in some ways, he has reason to be angry and bitter. I mean, here's somebody who grew up in the '50s and the '60s. He's gone through things that you and I never went through.

And so I think what was revealing in this whole episode was the degree to which I think large portions of white America were shocked or surprised that a lot of black people are still really angry about slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and discrimination, absolutely.

And I pointed out in the speech, that anger isn't necessarily healthy. In fact, often times it's self-destructive. More often, it is internalized in all kinds of ways. I mean, that's part of what we see in the inner city, where that anger and bitterness is turned inward, and kids shoot each other and take drugs and end up in jail sometimes.

Sometimes it expresses itself outwardly in ways that are offensive to the larger community. You remember when, during the O.J. trial, there was a similar moment when the culture -- you know, black and white culture just had these completely opposite reactions and nobody understood it.

And, by the way, I'm somebody who was pretty clear that O.J. was guilty. And I was ashamed for my own community to respond in that way, but I also understood what was taking place, which was that reaction had more to do with a sense that somehow the criminal justice system historically had been biased so profoundly that a defeat of that justice system was somehow a victory.

Now, that is an example of how unproductive that anger is and how we have to get beyond it, but it's there. And so that's why I said during the speech, in some ways for me to completely disown Rev. Wright is for me to disown the African-American community, because he embodies all the contradictions.

You know, this is why, during the course of this campaign, there have been moments where people say, "Well, I like Barack Obama, but not Al Sharpton. I like Colin Powell, but not Jesse. I like Oprah, but," you know, those of us who are African-American don't have that luxury.

And so what I can do then is to say, "Here's what I believe. Here's what I think. Here's where I think America needs to go."

MORAN: What do you mean you don't have the luxury?

OBAMA: I don't have the luxury of separating myself out and being selective, in terms of what it means to be African-American in this society. It's a big, complex thing. It's not monolithic.

MORAN: It seems to me that one of the things you were trying to do in this speech is say out loud, in public what we say in private within our different groups.

OBAMA: Right, exactly. And hopefully, I accurately captured not just what blacks say privately, but of what whites say privately. And that's part of -- you know, one strength I do have is that I've got a foot in each camp, right? You know, since I'm half-white and was raised by a white mom and white grandparents, I have a little more insight into those white resentments, again that are also rooted in history, and some of which are legitimate.

I mean, you think about the experience of whites in a place like Boston or Scranton, Pennsylvania, where, at time of economic stress and difficulty, suddenly blacks are moving in and kids are being bused, and there's some sense that the economic competition is being tilted unfairly because of affirmative action, right?

And, you know, there's street crime, because the blacks may be of lower income. And so it feels like neighborhoods are being destroyed, and that anger builds up, and that resentment builds up.

MORAN: And isn't that the nerve that Geraldine Ferraro touched?


OBAMA: Absolutely. Absolutely. She's from Queens.

MORAN: She was interpreted as saying you're an affirmative action candidate.

OBAMA: Right. Well, you know, you think about her generation and her background, coming from a neighborhood in New York that went through some of those same things. And I'm sure that that is part of what's in her mind. And it's a mistake then to simply tag it as racist. It's not -- that's not what's going on.

There is somebody who is shaped by a series of experiences with race in this country. And those things we don't talk about and, as a consequence, they get -- they go underground, but there are strong subterranean currents, and they shape our politics very powerfully.

MORAN: So this is a moment maybe where -- some people might put it this way: Do you consider yourself a black man or an American first?

OBAMA: An American, absolutely.

MORAN: Is there a difference between black patriotism and white patriotism?

OBAMA: No, I don't think so. I mean, what I think is that the African-American community is much more familiar with some of the darker aspects of American life and American history and so is less -- here's a good way to describe it.

You know, I think that they understand much less as a marching band playing John Philip Sousa and they understand America much more as a jazz composition, with blue notes. And I think those are different things.

And so the African-American community can express great rage and anger about this country and love it all the same, in a way that probably is less familiar to white America.

MORAN: And I suppose some people might ask, is that giving an excuse for the expression of anti-American sentiments, simply because they come from a black person?

OBAMA: Well, it doesn't excuse it. It just describes a reality. And, look, I mean, I think it is very important -- and I tried to raise this in a speech -- for white America to understand that this anger is not based on nothing. The anger is based on slavery and Jim Crow and a history that continues to have powerful sway over our daily lives.

And I know that one of the most difficult things about race in this country is that white America is much more likely to say, "That was in the past, so forget about it. Let it go."

MORAN: They'll say, "I didn't do that."

OBAMA: "I didn't do it."


OBAMA: Exactly. "So why are we focused on that?" And black America is saying, "The violence that was committed then under Jim Crow now expresses itself or is tied to the street crime that I'm having to deal with in my neighborhood or in my own family. The destruction of my great-grandfather's farm back then is directly related to the financial troubles I'm having now."

I mean, those connections are made in the black community. And so part of what we have to do is, on the one hand, the African-American community has to say to itself -- and this is our job -- it is to say that we can affirm and acknowledge that tragic history, but not be trapped by it, not be obsessed by it, not use this as an excuse or a crutch for our responsibilities in moving ourselves forward as a community, and individuals taking responsibility for their own success, and walking through the doors of opportunity that have been busted open for us.

On the other hand, white America, I think, has to take the time to say, "You know what? That history is powerful and painful. And I understand that, because of that history, there remain profound inequalities in this country and we as a country have an obligation to deal with them. It's not just something that we can shove aside or sweep under the rug."

And if those two transformations in attitudes could take place, we're still going to have conflicts, there are still going to be differences, but we can make progress.

MORAN: Do you really think you can do this, that your candidacy can help to change the racial dialogue, the way we deal with race?

OBAMA: Well, I was very clear in the campaign -- you know, I've never been so naive as to think that one election cycle or, as I put it, my candidacy, as imperfect as it is, could somehow change entirely 300 years of history.

I think, instead, this campaign offers an opportunity for America to think about some of these issues and engage them in a more honest way. But that's just one of the opportunities.

I mean, hopefully, what I'm trying to do in this campaign is to do the same thing that maybe I was able to do about race, to talk about the economy or talk about our foreign policy or talk about our obligations to each other with that same sense of a complex truth, you know, not simplifying things, not sound-biting things, seeing if we can dig, scratch a little deeper.

MORAN: There's a political risk for you here, though, isn't there? By embracing race, you might become the race candidate. And that's a limiting?

OBAMA: Absolutely. And so, you know, hopefully this is something that we have talked about, we've lifted up, it will spur discussion, like Robert Kennedy's wonderful metaphor, "ripples of hope." You know, you throw a rock into a pond and those ripples will go out.

We don't know where those ripples will go. I have no idea how this plays out politically. But I think it was important to do. And in a couple of days, I'll be talking about Iraq and national security, back on the trail.

MORAN: One more. You mentioned your wife, Michelle's, heritage in this speech. What kind of advice has she given you on these matters?

OBAMA: You know, Michelle and most of my black friends I think were much more confident and calm about me giving this speech. My white friends and advisers were much more nervous.

MORAN: Why? What's the difference?

OBAMA: I think that -- you know, the African-American community deals with this, grapples with this in ways that the white community just doesn't. I mean, I think this makes the larger society nervous and it's easier to disengage from it. I think there are a lot of African-Americans who would love to be able to not worry about race, but somehow it encroaches upon them.

You know, it's the classic example -- and this is a common experience. I think most African-Americans will share it. If there is some horrendous crime out there, black people are always a little nervous until they see the picture, hoping that it's not a black person who committed it.

A white person never thinks that way, because you, Terry Moran, would never assume that if there is some white male who fits your description who, you know, went on a rampage that somehow people are going to think of you differently. Black people, they worry about that.

So that's an example of how those realities are different and it means that the African-American community views these things in a different way and feels as if talking about it is important.

MORAN: Thank you.

OBAMA: Thanks.

Barack Obama, Interview with Terry Moran of ABC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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