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Gary Younge
Racial realpolitik

In years to come some will wonder how, with markets wavering, the Fed ready to pronounce and the US economy flirting with stagflation or, worse still, depression, 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. But nonetheless a speech that both could have been delivered any time over the past 30 years and also, somehow, had to be delivered now.

Essentially Barack Obama's speech today really 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" 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 just wrote that speech. If it had not been his pastor Jeremiah Wright it would have been someone or something else that opened the wound on which he has so eloquently been applying balm these last few months. To most African-Americans, Wright's fiery critiques of America 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. For those who seriously believed that everyone had bought into and benefited from the American Dream - 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 to both those who found his statements banal and 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 Kumbaya. He hoped for better times and said everyone had to do his bit.

That may be enough for now. It may even put to rest for the time being the notion, peddled by Geraldine Ferraro, that he is lucky to be a black candidate. We know nothing about the pastors of Clinton and 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 its cover with the question: "Does race still matter?" Those who believed his candidacy was evidence of a post-racial America now have their answer.

For more blogs on the US elections, click here.

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