Barack Obama’s “Race Speech,” ten years later

The former president’s famous speech, ten years ago this week, represents a more hopeful time

On March 18, 2008 — ten years ago this week — Sen. Barack Obama delivered what’s officially known as the “A More Perfect Union” speech, which has colloquially become known as “The Race Speech.”

The speech, delivered at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center ahead of that year’s Democratic presidential primary, is remembered for several reasons: Obama took perhaps the most historically fraught subject there is in America, and delivered a beautiful, nuanced take that touched on everything from the history of his own family to the anxieties and fears of both white and black Americans, all themes he had explored years earlier in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.”

The speech is also remembered as a masterpiece of political strategy and craftsmanship, as it helped Obama head off the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy that had threatened to sink his candidacy, and set him on the path towards the Democratic nomination, and eventually the presidency. It stands, along with his 2004 Democratic convention address and his Selma 50th anniversary speech, as one of the 44th president’s most acclaimed orations. And part of the reason why is how he delved into his own family’s stories:

“I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” the future president said.

He also addressed the many years of resentments that have contributed to America’s racial divide:

“The anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races,” Obama said of black Americans. He also acknowledged white Americans’ anger about busing, affirmative action and other historical sore points, while asking both to bind together for a better America. The address, quoting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, acknowledged that the Constitution itself was imperfect, and “unfinished.”

The speech is striking, a decade later, for several reasons, and not only because of how young Obama looks, or how jarring it is to see a U.S. president who speaks eloquently and brings up the topic of race without devolving into name-calling, stereotyping, or even worse. It’s also notable that, in the Trump era, it appears we’re further away from American racial reconciliation than ever before.

When Obama addressed the topic, there was no such thing as the “alt-right.” At that point, there were no large groups of avowed neo-Nazis marching in U.S. cities.

A month after the “Race Speech,” Obama debated Hillary Clinton in the same building, the Constitution Center, and eight years later, the two together would address an election eve rally, with the Constitution Center in the background.

It’s somewhat surprising that the tenth anniversary of the speech hasn’t gotten much commemoration, especially since two of the speechwriters involved — Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau and CNN’s David Axelrod — are now major media commentators. Perhaps it’s because with the shape our country is in now, it feels like it was delivered a lot more than ten years ago.