Blacks Wrestle With Obama-Wright Rift

Ariel Sabar, Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 2008

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Says Eric McDaniel, an expert on black politics and religion at the University of Texas at Austin: “It gets back to the ‘is he black enough?’ question.”

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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.”

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