In a video obtained exclusively by The Daily Caller, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama tells an audience of black ministers, including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that the U.S. government shortchanged Hurricane Katrina victims because of racism.
“The people down in New Orleans they don’t care about as much!” Obama shouts in the video, which was shot in June of 2007 at Hampton University in Virginia. By contrast, survivors of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Andrew received generous amounts of aid, Obama explains. The reason? Unlike residents of majority-black New Orleans, the federal government considers those victims “part of the American family.”
The racially charged and at times angry speech undermines Obama’s carefully-crafted image as a leader eager to build bridges between ethnic groups. For nearly 40 minutes, using an accent he almost never adopts in public, Obama describes a racist, zero-sum society, in which the white majority profits by exploiting black America. The mostly black audience shouts in agreement. The effect is closer to an Al Sharpton rally than a conventional campaign event.
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Obama gave the speech in the middle of a hotly-contested presidential primary season, but his remarks escaped scrutiny. Reporters in the room seem to have missed or ignored his most controversial statements. The liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan linked to what he described as a “transcript” of the speech, which turned out not to be a transcript at all, but instead the prepared remarks provided by the campaign. In fact, Obama, who was not using a teleprompter, deviated from his script repeatedly and at length, ad libbing lines that he does not appear to have used before any other audience during his presidential run. A local newspaper posted a series of video clips of the speech, but left out key portions. No complete video of the Hampton speech was widely released.
Obama begins his address with “a special shout out” to Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor who nearly derailed Obama’s campaign months later when his sermons attacking Israel and America and accusing the U.S. government of “inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color” became public. To the audience at Hampton, Obama describes Wright as, “my pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend and a great leader. Not just in Chicago, but all across the country.”
By the time Obama appeared at Hampton, Jeremiah Wright had become a political problem. Wright told The New York Times earlier that year that he would no longer be speaking on the campaign’s behalf because his rhetoric was considered too militant. And yet later in the Hampton speech Obama explicitly defends Wright from unnamed critics, a group he describes as “they”: “They had stories about Trinity United Church of Christ, because we talked about black people in church: ‘Oh, that might be a separatist church,'” Obama said mockingly.
The spine of Obama’s speech is a parable about a pregnant woman shot in the stomach during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The baby is born with a bullet in her arm, which doctors successfully remove. That bullet, Obama explains, is a metaphor for the problems facing black America, namely racism. (At a similar speech he gave in April of 2007 at the First AME Church in Los Angeles to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the riots, according to a church member who was there, Obama described the slug as, “the bullet of slavery and Jim Crow.”)
At least 53 people were killed during the chaos in Los Angeles, many of them targeted by mobs because of their skin color. But Obama does not describe the riots as an expression of racism, but rather as the result of it. The burning and shooting and looting, he explains, amounted to “Los Angeles expressing a lingering, ongoing, pervasive legacy, a tragic legacy out of the tragic history of this country, a history this country has never fully come to terms with.”
And with that, Obama pivots to his central point: The Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Katrina have racism in common. “The federal response after Katrina was similar to the response we saw after the riots in LA,” he thunders from the podium. “People in Washington, they wake up, they’re surprised: ‘There’s poverty in our midst! Folks are frustrated! Black people angry!’ Then there’s gonna be some panels, and hearings, and there are commissions and there are reports, and then there’s some aid money, although we don’t always know where it’s going — it can’t seem to get to the people who need it — and nothin’ really changes, except the news coverage quiets down and Anderson Cooper is on to something else.”
It’s at about this point that Obama pauses, apparently agitated, and tells the crowd that he wants to give “one example because this really steams me up,” an example that he notes does not appear in his prepared remarks:
LISTEN TO THE DIFFERENCE:
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“Down in New Orleans, where they still have not rebuilt twenty months later,” he begins, “there’s a law, federal law — when you get reconstruction money from the federal government — called the Stafford Act. And basically it says, when you get federal money, you gotta give a ten percent match. The local government’s gotta come up with ten percent. Every ten dollars the federal government comes up with, local government’s gotta give a dollar.”
“Now here’s the thing,” Obama continues, “when 9-11 happened in New York City, they waived the Stafford Act — said, ‘This is too serious a problem. We can’t expect New York City to rebuild on its own. Forget that dollar you gotta put in. Well, here’s ten dollars.’ And that was the right thing to do. When Hurricane Andrew struck in Florida, people said, ‘Look at this devastation. We don’t expect you to come up with y’own money, here. Here’s the money to rebuild. We’re not gonna wait for you to scratch it together — because you’re part of the American family.'”
That’s not, Obama says, what is happening in majority-black New Orleans. “What’s happening down in New Orleans? Where’s your dollar? Where’s your Stafford Act money?” Obama shouts, angry now. “Makes no sense! Tells me that somehow, the people down in New Orleans they don’t care about as much!”
It’s a remarkable moment, and not just for its resemblance to Kayne West’s famous claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” but also because of its basic dishonesty. By January of 2007, six months before Obama’s Hampton speech, the federal government had sent at least $110 billion to areas damaged by Katrina. Compare this to the mere $20 billion that the Bush administration pledged to New York City after Sept. 11.
Moreover, the federal government did at times waive the Stafford Act during its reconstruction efforts. On May 25, 2007, just weeks before the speech, the Bush administration sent an additional $6.9 billion to Katrina-affected areas with no strings attached.
As a sitting United States Senator, Obama must have been aware of this. And yet he spent 36 minutes at the pulpit telling a mostly black audience that the U.S. government doesn’t like them because they’re black.
As the speech continues, Obama makes repeated and all-but-explicit appeals to racial solidarity, referring to “our” people and “our neighborhoods,” as distinct from the white majority. At one point, he suggests that black people were excluded from rebuilding contracts after the storm: “We should have had our young people trained to rebuild the homes down in the Gulf. We don’t need Halliburton doing it. We can have the people who were displaced doing that work. Our God is big enough to do that.”
This theme — that black Americans suffer while others profit — is a national problem, Obama continues: “We need additional federal public transportation dollars flowing to the highest need communities. We don’t need to build more highways out in the suburbs,” where, the implication is, the rich white people live. Instead, Obama says, federal money should flow to “our neighborhoods”: “We should be investing in minority-owned businesses, in our neighborhoods, so people don’t have to travel from miles away.”
The solution, Obama says, is a series of new federal programs, including one to teach punctuality to the poor: “We can’t expect them to have all the skills they need to work. They may need help with basic skills, how to shop, how to show up for work on time, how to wear the right clothes, how to act appropriately in an office. We have to help them get there.”
WATCH THE NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN FULL SPEECH:
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In the prepared version distributed to reporters, Obama’s speech ends this way:
“America is going to survive. We won’t forget where we came from. We won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, 15 years ago, thousands of years ago.”
That’s not what he actually said. Before the audience at Hampton, Obama ends his speech this way:
“America will survive. Just like black folks will survive. We won’t forget where we came from. We won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.”
Three hundred years ago. It’s a reference the audience understood.