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Gary Younge
A sore that still festers

Some will wonder in years to come how, with markets wavering, the Fed ready to pronounce and the American economy flirting with stagflation - or, worse still, recession - the top political story in the US became a story about race, even for a few hours. Not even a story. A speech. A good speech - a speech that could have been delivered any time over the past 30 years, but also, somehow, had to be delivered now.

Essentially, Senator Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia yesterday said nothing new, even if it contradicted what he has said before. Back when he was addressing the Democratic convention in 2004, he claimed: "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." Such realities are not created by fiat, and the past few weeks have proved how audacious such hopeful statements were.

The "racial stalemate" that he referred to acknowledges that race is a festering sore in America - not because some people are sensitive and others are mean, but because for as long as there has been an America, black and white people have had completely different experiences of what being an American means. It is difficult to believe that Obama had only just written yesterday's speech. If it had not been his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, someone or something else would have opened that wound on which Obama has so eloquently been applying balm these past few months. To most African Americans, the Rev Wright's fiery critiques of the US were as banal as Bill Cosby's screeds against bad parenting; as common a thing to find around a black dinner table as hot pepper sauce.

But he had to say it now because he is not standing to be head of a black supper club, but president of a country where most white people have probably never had dinner with a black family, let alone gone to their church. He said it for those who seriously believed that everyone had bought into and benefited from the American dream. To those who did not hear, could not understand or would not listen, it was news that some were disaffected not just with what America has become but what it long has been. With Wright's sermons zipping around YouTube, Obama had to speak both to those who found his statements banal and to those who believed them to be ballistic. He had to intervene before Wright became Willie Horton with a dog collar.

To that extent the speech probably worked. He acknowledged white disadvantage and black alienation; he refused to disown Wright for the same reason he refused to disown his own white grandmother - because good people in bad societies will sometimes say and do bad things. He acknowledged there were problems and then said "Kum ba ya". He hoped for better times and said everyone had to do their bit. That may be enough for now.

It may even, for the time being, put to rest the notion, peddled by the former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, that he would not have got as far as he has were he not African American. We know nothing about the pastors of Hillary Clinton and John McCain - or how offensive their views might be to African Americans. I think we can safely say that had Obama been white he would not have had to make this speech.

We can, with equal certainty, say that it won't be the last time that race comes up, particularly if he becomes the nominee. Last month US News & World Report put Obama on the cover with the question: "Does Race Still Matter?" Those who believed his candidacy was evidence of a post-racial America now have their answer.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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