The Wright Race Stuff

16 03 2008


In his Huffington Post opinion piece on Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s controversial remarks Barack Obama condemned his pastor’s remarks yet not the figure himself. This is bound to strike some people as fitting and others woefully insufficient. It’s stronger than saying “an old uncle who says things I don’t always agree with,” but not wholesale rejection of the Reverend’s entire ministry.

That’s going to be a problem for those who find Rev. Wrights statements comparing Israel treatment of Palestians to South African apartheid government, saying the U.S. manufactured AIDS, or that 9/11 was an a direct consequence of American foreign policy too objectionable to give Obama a second look.

But from Obama’s point of view that’s an entirely understandable position to take given his history with Rev. Wright. Rev. Wright is probably the most important figure responsible for Obama becoming a devout Christian at all. He also married the Illinois Senator and his wife, Michelle, and baptized both their daughters. The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s most recent book, also bears the title of one of Rev. Wright’s sermons on the Christian message of hope. Obama would come off as a fraud and a panderer if he said he wanted nothing to do with the man from now on.

Plus, Obama has also noted in Huff Post piece that Rev. Wright has served as a U.S. Marine, is a respected biblical scholar, and is considered a pillar in Chicago for his “ranging from housing the homeless to reaching out to those with HIV/AIDS.” This suggests that Obama’s appreciate of the full measure of Rev. Wright’s ministry went beyond the fiery rhetoric that’s been heavy rotation on the cable networks throughout the week.

But by the same token, Rev. Wright’s comments, on racial matters in particular, do speak to a simmering rage in black America among that can be found in many barbershops, beauty and nail salons, blogs, and, apparently at the pulpit too. “Racism is alive and well. Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run,” Wright once said. Obama’s days as a community organizer in South Side Chicago must have been made him all too familiar with those sentiments, but he still found a way not to have his career shaped by that perspective. This much is true for those who care to examine his record.

Whether originating from his supporters or his detractors, Obama has been making the case that such sentiments, and oftentimes the reaction to them, frequently lead to the type of divisiveness he purports to campaign against. In the video clip below, watch him make precisely this point in a recent speech in Plainfield, Indiana.


To be sure, Obama’s condemnation of Wright’s remarks was justified as well as being a political necessity. He can’t win the Democratic nomination much less the presidency by being tacitly or explicitly approval of them. But I am not so sure this will be sufficient in the long run when Republicans start running ads against Obama with Wright’s incendiary remarks in them. In the long run, the negative campaign and heighten media scrutiny will drive up his negative polling up and begin to erase some of his cross over appeal among independents and Republicans.

If the persistent attacks go unanswered, they will cause many people to question how much of Obama’s cool head has been influenced by Wright’s belly of fire. And for most people it will not be enough to say he was just my pastor, not a policy adviser. Inquiring minds will want to know how many sermons and private conversations has Obama had with Rev. Wright about racism and politics? What were they about? And why did he remain at Rev. Wright’s church so long?

As I have said in a previous post, to quell these anxieties and doubts, Obama will take these legitimate concerns head on in a speech in the very near future similar to what John F. Kennedy did in 1960. He should be truthful about the role of faith in his personal and public life. And among other things, he should categorically reject divisive statements and openly discuss the importance of the social gospel without alienating atheists and persons of other faiths. In other words, the religion speech that Mitt Romney should have given.

But something else is at work he too. Even if Obama lives this down, the sheen of his so-called post-racial candidacy will fade. Until now, Obama has successfully dodged the bullet on serious efforts to tag him as the black politician, who is only interested in black issues or seemingly too tethered to the black community. Media reports last year noted tension within Obama’s campaign as he navigated the world of presidential politics and maintaining support within the black community.

The New York Times reported in April of last year:

The dynamic began the first day of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid, when white advisers encouraged him to withdraw an invitation to his pastor, whose Afro-centric sermons have been construed as antiwhite, to deliver the invocation at the official campaign kickoff. Then, when his candidacy was met by a wave of African-American suspicion, the senator’s black aides pulled in prominent black scholars, business leaders and elected officials as advisers.

During the last year, Obama has found ways to amass white and black support by actively associating himself with elements of black America that palatable to mainstream electorate. He won the enthusiastic endorsement of Oprah Winfrey and often invokes Dr. King’s language and the valiant efforts of civil rights generation of activists. As a result he appeared as safe and non-threatening to many voters.

The Reverend Wright controversy is starting to change all of that. And now we see Obama’s rhetoric changing a bit. On Countdown with Keith Olberman he said:

Now, one thing that I do hope to do is to use some of these issues to talk more fully about the question of race in our society, because part of what we’re seeing here is Reverend Wright represents a generation that came of age in the 60s.

He’s an African-American man, who, because of his life experience continues to have a lot of anger and frustration, and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation, partly because I benefited from the struggles of that early generation. And so, part of what we’re seeing here is a transition from the past to the future. And I hope that our politics represents the future.

I could not agree more. Let see if the country is ready for it.

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