Obama's Speech is Called Inspiring, Challenging: Locals See Message for Rebuilding New Orleans

United States


Times-Picayune ( New Orleans)

March 19, 2008


By David Hammer

In a region sharply divided along racial lines, New Orleans area political figures gave a mix of positive and guarded responses Tuesday to Barack Obama’s attempt to quiet an uproar about racial rhetoric in the presidential campaign.  

In some circles nationally, critics dismissed the speech by the senator from Illinois as a self-serving effort to distance himself from his longtime pastor’s comments about white people, Israel and America’s role in bringing terrorism upon itself. But a smattering of local leaders saw healing potential in Obama’s remarks.

As the son of a black man and a white woman, and the first black front-runner for a major party presidential nomination, Obama presented himself as someone who could take a superficial national dialogue about race to a more honest and complete level. But Obama’s speech was also about confronting his own political albatross: incendiary comments made on the pulpit by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor and mentor in Chicago for more than two decades.  

Silas Lee, a political analyst and pollster who has tracked racial perceptions in New Orleans for more than 20 years, said nobody can transcend race, as some thought Obama could. It’s important to put Obama’s speech into context, he said. It addressed race, but didn’t lay out any plan of action to confront the nation’s racial divide.

"This speech had two objectives: He wanted to talk about the issue of race overall, and he wanted to set the record straight and put his campaign back on course as to the comments of Rev. Wright," said Lee, who is black. "We have to be realistic about what’s next."  

The speech’s effect will have a lot to do with the views held by those who listened and whether people turn the message into real action at an institutional level, Lee said. The same may be said for a detailed report recently released by the New Orleans Human Relations Commission on the city’s racial and ethnic divisions and how to overcome them. In that context, Obama’s speech resonated.

A message of unity  

"What struck me the most about this speech is how applicable Obama’s message of unity is to not only the entire country, but particularly New Orleans," said City Council President Arnie Fielkow, who is white and has endorsed Obama.

"New Orleanians can relate tremendously to the call for unity and the only way to get there is to have open and honest dialogue on all issues, including race. . . . The true essence of Senator Obama’s speech is that there is more that unites us than divides us and we need to keep that in mind, especially right now as we rebuild New Orleans."  

Cheron Brylski, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana campaign of Obama’s rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Obama’s background allows him to address the race question in a new way.

"The very fact that you have a major black presidential candidate addressing the issue of race in a major speech is approaching the subject in a new way," she said. "This is not a symbolic candidate, this is a black candidate with the chance of winning the Democratic nomination. That has never happened before."  

Michael Cowan, chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission and director of Common Good, a nonprofit agency seeking interracial consensus about the rebuilding of New Orleans, said he was impressed with how Obama disavowed Wright’s statements without doing the politically expedient thing and "cutting loose" a complex man who has meant a lot to Obama and his family through many years.

Cowan also said Obama broke new ground in the nation’s race debate by calling on both the white and black communities to take equal responsibility for breaking an impasse. In New Orleans after Katrina, Cowan said it’s important for members of both races to take up Obama’s challenge to recognize how each has suffered in the past without becoming bogged down in past evils.  

"Obama issued a very strong challenge to the African-American community not to get so lost in racial grievance that they don’t come to the table with the people who want to fix public schools, who want the criminal justice system to work fairly and treat everyone fairly," said Cowan, who is white. "We need interracial leadership and partnership to get things done."

Didn’t go far enough  

Rabbi Ed Cohn, another member of the city’s Human Relations Commission, agreed with the tenor of Obama’s speech. But Cohn was dissatisfied in how the senator handled his relationship with Wright.

"For a man who’s running for president of the United States responding to someone who said not ‘God bless America’ but quite the opposite, he should have distanced himself as much as one person can from another," Cohn said. "I wish he had gone further."  

Brylski said Obama would not have delivered the speech if Wright wasn’t hurting his campaign.

Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser, a white Republican who said he is sometimes called a racist by frustrated African-American citizens who are struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, said he was impressed with what he has learned of Obama’s speech. The Democrat is clearly trying to move beyond racial rhetoric, he said.  

"I think he’s above that," Nungesser said. "You’ve got to take him on h
is word, and thus far he’s been pretty inspiring."






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