WASHINGTON -- Trying to quell a "firestorm" that threatens his presidential chances, Barack Obama delivered a sweeping address yesterday that bluntly challenged Americans to move beyond "the racial stalemate that we've been stuck in for years."
He repeated his criticism of racially charged remarks by his former pastor that, he acknowledged, have raised "nagging questions" about his candidacy. But he also used the controversy as a springboard for wide-ranging remarks that touched on the nation's legacy of racial division and long-simmering animosities that, he said, have hindered social progress.
Before an invited audience in downtown Philadelphia, near where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Obama spoke sympathetically about the way that affirmative action has stoked racial resentment among whites. But he also called on whites to recognize the burdens that blacks still face, almost a century and a half after slavery was outlawed.
"What ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people," he said. Anti-black discrimination, "while less overt than in the past," is "real, and must be addressed" with more spending for education, enforcement of civil rights laws and fairness in the criminal justice system.
His decision to throw a spotlight onto the volatile topic of race, one month before the Pennsylvania primary, was part of his campaign's effort to limit damage from his pastor's controversial statements and reverse a potentially dangerous slide among white voters.
Some Democratic strategists believe that Obama faces a thicker glass ceiling in attempting to become the first black president than Hillary Clinton does in smashing the barrier for women. Democratic superdelegates, who could decide the nomination, may choose to back Clinton if they conclude that she'd be a stronger candidate in November.
Recent polls have suggested that large numbers of whites will defect to Republican John McCain if Obama is nominated, speculation that Obama criticized yesterday as an old-style political "distraction" that is blocking change.
Tackling the racial gulf that separates whites and blacks could strengthen Obama's appeal among suburban independent voters, especially moderate white women, a key constituency for both parties. But it also risks further alienating downscale white voters, especially blue-collar men, who have emerged as a crucial swing vote in the Democratic primaries.
White men, after tilting to Obama earlier in the campaign, including in last month's Maryland primary, have moved back to Clinton in recent contests. New polling in Pennsylvania, which votes April 22, suggests that Clinton has benefited from a growing racial split among likely Democratic voters.
Yesterday, Obama tried to span that divide by addressing the racial anxieties that affirmative action has produced among whites.
Most working- and middle-class white Americans see "a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds," he said.
"To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns," he added, "widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding."
Tying his remarks to the central theme of his candidacy, Obama said the real enemies that whites face aren't blacks but an economic squeeze caused by greedy corporations and powerful special interests in Washington.
Blacks, meantime, need to embrace the "conservative notion of self-help" and recognize that "society can change," he said.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his spiritual mentor, who preached about self-help, made the "profound mistake" of failing to grasp the progress in American society that made his own presidential candidacy possible, Obama said.
Obama again condemned his former pastor's statements, as he has repeatedly done since Friday.
After Sept. 11, Wright described America as a racist nation that brought the attacks on itself and had "supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans." He also referred to the United States as "the U.S. of KKK A."
Obama said his pastor had expressed "a profoundly distorted view of this country" that was "not only wrong but divisive." Obama also said that many Americans have strongly disagreed with remarks they've heard their own religious leaders deliver from the pulpit.