The great need of the hour
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following are remarks as prepared for delivery by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008.
is the great need of the hour — the great need of this hour. Not
because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but
because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that
exists in this country.
I’m not talking about a
budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking
about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.
I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy
deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one
another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our
sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied
together in a single garment of destiny.
We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down
corridors of shame — schools in the forgotten corners of America where
the color of your skin still affects the content of your education.
We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in 10 minutes than some
workers make in 10 months; when families lose their homes so that
lenders make a profit; when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their
children get sick.
We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice
for some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses
hanging from a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the 21st
We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our
cities; when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur; when
young Americans serve tour after tour of duty in a war that should’ve
never been authorized and never been waged.
And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a
breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the
hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care
for; the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.
Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country,
we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We’ve come
to believe that racial reconciliation can come easily — that it’s just
a matter of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the
past, and that if the demagogues and those who exploit our racial
divisions will simply go away, then all our problems would be solved.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a
change in attitudes — a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of
It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see
past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But
what makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this
country that seeks to drive us apart — that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different
from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who
don’t think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The
welfare queen is taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our
jobs. The believer condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the
non-believer chides the believer as intolerant.
For most of this country’s history, we in the African American
community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man.
And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still
sometimes plays — on the job, in the schools, in our health care system
and in our criminal justice system.
Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across
all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out on
television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even
crept into the campaign for president, with charges and counter-charges
that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical
choices we face as a nation.
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us
the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the
stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame our plight
on others — all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face
— war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to
build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer
afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we
must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before
the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the
faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and
fire hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in
our time, and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that
exists in our hearts.