Exploring Race & Racism through Obama's Speech on Race

March 19, 2008

Senator Barack Obama's March 18, 2008, speech is a teachable moment for issues of race, racism, and race relations in the United States. Here, suggestions for classroom discussion and inquiry based on a reading or viewing of Obama's speech.

The objective of this lesson is to study Barack Obama's March 18, 2008, speech and to use it as a springboard to discuss race in the context of history and personal background; feelings such as anger, disappointment and hope; the impact of culture, class, and age on race; segregation, the economy, and our hope for the future.


1. Introduction/Background

Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech entitled "A More Perfect Union" in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008. He delivered this speech in response to criticism of his association with his long-time pastor and spiritual advisor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright has been criticized for some controversial remarks he made while giving his sermons at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Some have deemed those statements anti-American and anti-white. Some maintained that Senator Obama didn't distance himself enough from Reverend Wright and his so-called "hate speech." Senator Obama responded to the controversy with this speech.
Ask students: Who is Barack Obama? What do you know about him? Why did he make this speech, and why now? Has anyone already seen it or read it?

2. Read or view the speech

Watch the entire speech on video or read aloud Obama's speech. Links to the video and transcript are provided below. You may also have the students read silently if that is preferable.

A video of the speech can before found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN_Su8ywLwk

The text of the speech can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html?bl&ex=1205985600&en=159a0f4776d53b1c&ei=5087%0A

3. Feelings Web

After watchinging the speech, explore the students' feelings about it. or read

Write "feelings about the speech" and draw a circle around it. Ask the students how the speech made them feel. Record their words on a semantic web. Write "feelings about the speech" and draw a circle around it. After watching and/or reading the speech, ask students how the speech made them feel. Record their words on a semantic web, connecting the words to the circle with lines. (Words might include such emotions as angry, embarrassed, proud, confused, relieved, nervous sad, or happy.)

Discuss: What do you notice about the words? Are they mostly positive, negative, or mixed? Were a lot of feelings generated?

4. Micro-Lab

Break students into groups of four. Explain that they will be doing a micro-lab, which is a structured way to talk in small groups so that everyone gets a chance to speak and listen. Explain that you will ask a question and the students should take turns one at a time and respond to each question. Each student will have one minute to respond to each question. When the minute is up, the teacher will call "time," which will let them know to move onto the next question. After everyone has responded to the first question, the next question will be asked. There should be no cross-talking or interrupting.

Small-group questions:

1. After reading or hearing the speech, did you learn any new information? Did you have any new insight or see a new perspective? If so what was it?

2. In Obama's speech, what did you agree with and what resonated with you?
3. What did you disagree with or find difficult to hear?

4. Have you had any similar experiences as Obama? If so, what are they?

Reconvene the whole class and ask for volunteers to share what they said in the micro-lab. Remind students that they should only share what they said in the micro-lab and not what someone else said.

Large group questions:
1. What do you think Barack Obama's background and family might have to do with his perspective on race?
2. What is the role of anger in looking at race and racism? What do the different races have in common when it comes to anger? What are constructive and destructive uses of anger?
3. What other issues does Obama raise in addition to race and racism? Are these issues interconnected? If so, how?

4. How does Obama connect history (such as the creation of the Constitution and slavery) to modern history (such as segregation and the civil rights movement) and to current day racism and issues such as affirmative action?
5. What does Obama say about how different generations view race issues?

6. How do you think Obama has come to the understanding of race, racism, and race relations that he has?

7. What stance is Obama taking on his relationship with Reverend Wright, and why do you think he has taken that stance?

8. If you could ask Obama one question, what would it be?

5. Further Questions for Discussion and/or Research

Have students brainstorm a list of questions for further discussion and research. Use these questions for research papers and further discussion when time allows.


Do a go-round, with each student saying one word or phrase that describes a thought or feeling coming out of this activity.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email us at: info@morningsidecenter.org.