Obama's Charleston eulogy: His defining moment on race?

President Obama will deliver the eulogy for slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, in a second term in which the president seems more willing to address the difficult issue of race in the US.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Annual Meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, on June 19.

In an announcement that could signal a defining moment of Barack Obama's presidency, the White House said Monday that the president will deliver the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims of a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last Wednesday.

The president first addressed the Charleston shooting on Thursday, when he highlighted the country's problem with gun violence.

"We as a country at some point will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence doesn’t happen in other advanced countries,” Mr. Obama said.

In an interview released Monday, however, Obama used the shooting – in which authorities have charged white supremacist Dylann Roof with killing nine black parishioners during Bible study – to speak bluntly about race.

"Racism – we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say [the N-word] in public," Obama said in an interview for the podcast "WTF with Marc Maron."

"That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior," he said, adding that "the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination" still exists and casts "a long shadow, and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on."

Those comments, unusually candid for a president known for his measured, careful speech, may foreshadow Obama's Friday eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, potentially a big moment in the nation's conversation on race.

Almost seven years after the first black president was elected in a historic election that some hailed as ushering in a post-racial America, Obama's growing willingness to openly discuss America's fraught race relations in the final years of his presidency reflects a posture that, over the course of his tenure, has grown markedly more frank and frustrated.

Consider his stance in his first term, when Obama often appeared hesitant to address race. "He distanced himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had made controversial comments about race and the Sept. 11, 2001 attack in 2008," the Christian Science Monitor reported in May. "Obama was widely criticized for his 2009 White House beer summit, in which he offered a feeble attempt to mend ties between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a white policeman."

Even in his famed race speech in 2008 in Philadelphia, the president "emphasized his white heritage as much as his black – the fact that his mother came from Kansas as well as his father coming from Kenya," reported the BBC. "He seemed almost to be de-emphasising his blackness."

But a recent spate of high-profile, racially charged violence – from Trayvon Martin to Freddie Gray – not only sparked a fervent national conversation about race, they appeared to rouse the president.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said in unusually personal comments after the shooting of the unarmed black teen in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

And in recent months, both the president and the first lady have spoken out more forthrightly on the subject. In a December 2014 interview with People Magazine, they shared their own experiences with racism, including Obama's experience of being mistaken for a waiter at a gala.

In May, Michelle Obama made headlines for a frank commencement address at Tuskegee University, in which she spoke about her personal battle with racism and questioned how much America has progressed on race relations.

This Friday's eulogy offers the president an opportunity to make a seminal, perhaps historic, speech about America and race.

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