The Wright Liability: Barack Obama’s Response to Racial Controversy
In the middle of March 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was drawn into a racial controversy when ABC News aired a story about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had been Obama’s pastor for 20 years and who retired in February 2008 from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The story, entitled “Obama’s Preacher: The Wright Message,” contained snippets from two of Reverend Wright’s sermons which, taken out of context, could be framed as incendiary, radical, and divisive: “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” and “Not God bless America; God damn America!”1 These sound bites were then broadcast by other TV stations, including conservative ones such as Fox News, and played incessantly to portray the pastor as an angry black radical and to question his influence on Obama. The academic attention this controversy received turned mainly to “A More Perfect Union,” the speech Barack Obama delivered on March 18, 2008, which is understandable to a certain degree because this was a pivotal speech for the Democratic senator. This chapter challenges such a narrow focus and argues that Obama’s approach, which was multilayered, aimed to defend and cement the image he had projected up to that point in his presidential campaign: a fresh politician and a unifying figure, able to overcome partisanship and bridge racial divisions.