Sunday, March 16, 2008

race and America, part one

There has been a bit of dust raised in the media and the blogosphere concerning the leader of Barack Obama's church in Chicago, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Tapes of his sermons have been combed for polemical soundbites, and polemical soundbites have been found. Rev. Wright's patriotism and opinions on race have been questioned. Some of Obama's supports in blogspace have been concerned, and his opponents have leaped on Rev. Wright as the silver bullet against Obama's seemingly unstoppable rise.

Of course, if we want to know how Obama feels about race and his country, we can consult the two books and a number of speeches he has written. So is there a need to investigate his preacher? He has been clear about how he feels concerning Wright's declarations. Still, I think the interpretations of Wright's statements (which were cherry-picked from forty years of preaching) can be revealing.

One of the claims is that Rev. Wright is unpatriotic and anti-American. I personally am careful before I call an ex-Marine unpatriotic, for more than one reason, but here's the headline from the ABC News webpage story on Wright: "Obama's Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11." Well, that sounds pretty bad. Let's take a look at the first part, as reported by ABC, in context:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
This is passionate rhetoric, and it seems to be in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who denounced Israel when it was unfaithful. To me, it questions how frivolous and empty statements such as "God bless America" can be when not followed by a desire to create a more just society. It also follows a tradition of African-American thought that addresses the marginality of the black experience and the awareness that experience creates, the awareness that America is an unfinished project that needs a critical self-examination in order to fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all. From Kevin, a similar passage from Frederick Douglass:
"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn...your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."
Wright has also been criticized for seeing the attack of September 11th as a result of U.S. policies from Hiroshima to Palestine. The biggest problem I have with this is the timing -- only a few days after the attack. At the same time, I remember how after 9/11 any discussion of the motivations of hijackers that was more reflexive than "they are evil" or the vacuous "they hate our freedom" was greeted with tremendous scorn, as if even trying to understand what had happened would be to question the obvious evilness of the act. Once again, what is patriotism, flag-waving or a search to improve the country?

Another common refrain about Rev. Wright is that he is "hateful" and "racist." (While I was writing this post, I happened to see a "talk radio debate" on CSPAN. Some right-wing talk radio guy used both these words, and when Al Sharpton asked him to explain what Wright had said that was racist, the right-wing guy could only quote the two statements above, confusing the context of each one, neither of which had much to do with "hating white people." Sharpton called him on it and his only answer was to shout incoherently. Nice.) I've seen this over and over again in blogland, from Republicans and some Democrats (mainly Clinton supporters).

Not everyone has been clear about why Rev. Wright is supposedly racist, though some have pointed to the mission statement of his church:

We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian... Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are an African people, and remain "true to our native land," the mother continent, the cradle of civilization. God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.
The arguments goes, "well, if you substitute 'White' and 'Europe' for 'Black' and 'African,' the church would rightly be condemned as white supremacist and racist. Doesn't that make the church racist against whites?"

This is an important point, because it reveals the way many, if not most, white people think of racism. It is for them a simple matter of individual perception. They might say, "Racism happens only when a specific person rejects another because of his or her race. As a society, we overcome racism by changing attitudes one person at a time. Now, of course, there is much less racism in American society because we all grew up watching the Cosby show and we love Tiger Woods and Will Smith and we all listen to hip hop now." From this point of view, it's easy to think that diversity problems like Affirmative Action are unfair, because they aren't "colorblind," and that a lot of blacks complain too much about race relations in the U.S.

African-Americans, for the most part, do not complain too much. They talk about their own experiences. White people do not have to think about their racial identity if they choose not to, because it is the norm in our society. A black person, however, has to deal with race being the first part of their identity that is processed by their fellow citizens in any given public situation. He or she is defined as "a black person" before any other aspect of his or herself can create an impression. Race is extremely pervasive in American society, and even if it lies on a subconscious level for most whites, it is painfully obvious to most blacks.

A black person thinking about black identity is then essentially different that a white person thinking about white identity, because in our culture the latter is the norm and the former is "the other." All minorities have to deal with this, but the African-American case is unique because of the legacy of slavery. Slavery and its consequences not only created the context for a particularly noxious form of racism, but it also created an underclass with a problematic sense of identity. Ripped long ago from a different culture and then living first not as citizens, and then as second-class citizens, African-Americans have learned what they are not (white) before they have learned what they are. Searching for a positive sense of black identity is still an urgent task, and that's why talking about "black identity" and "white identity" is talking about two completely different things. As Rev. Wright himself said:
The African-centered point of view does not assume superiority, nor does it assume separatism. It assumes Africans speaking for themselves as subjects in history, not objects in history.
As I understand it, Rev. Wright's black liberation theology developed from the same roots as Catholic liberation theology in Latin America. The basic idea behind it is that an oppressed group, whether black Americans or the Latin American poor, are given a religion by their oppressor, and recognizes themselves to be especially positioned to appreciate the message in that same religion. Who did Jesus preach to, if not the poor and marginalized? What do the prophets of the Old Testament rail against, if not the powerful crushing the humble? Reflecting on the implication of this identification with the oppressed of the Bible means a frank look at oppression, the oppressed, and the oppressor. That's the context of this particular sermon of Rev. Wright's:
...who cares about what a poor, black man has to face every day in a country and a culture controlled by rich, white people. Somebody missed that. You got nervous, because we’ve got some white members here. I’m still in Bible country. I’m still in the text. Jesus was a poor, black man who lived in a country, and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich, white people. The Romans were rich, the Romans were Italians, which means they were European, which means they were white, and the Romans ran everything in Jesus’ country.
The identification of the Romans as "European" and "white" in this quote is a bit heavy-handed, but once again, from the African-American point of view, the question of race in structures of oppression is inescapable. This is not a question of biological determination, it is a question of the reality of the cultural construction known as race in the United States. It is a question of the reality of prison population, income, and infant death in this country, the statistics of which break radically along racial lines. That is how Jesus is black and the Romans are white, in the sense of the structures of our society.

Even if my analysis is not correct, how does this affect Obama? What do people mean when they fault him for attending this church? The common complaint is, "If I went to a church and the minister was spewing out this kind of hateful speech, I would leave. But he stayed there for twenty years." Of course, this is assuming that these few quotes are typical of Rev. Wright's preaching and that his preaching really is "hateful." Still, what are they trying to say? What's the implication for them of Obama going to this church?

Since what Obama has said and written is less polemical that these comments from Rev. Wright, less concerned with Black identity and more concerned with American unity, are we to assume that everything he's said has been a lie, that it has been a mask for some kind of crypto-Black Nationalism? Is it that easy to make Barack Obama a black supremacist?

Only if you really want to. I sense in all these blog posts and comments and radio rantings an immense relief now that the Wright sermons are making their entrance onto the scene. There's a ring of "I knew it!" Obama used to be the Islamic Manchurian candidate, now he's the Black Panther Manchurian candidate. If he associates with a "racist," then suddenly we're on an even playing ground. White people can now feel that Obama resents them because of their whiteness and thus he has become the "other," the angry black man, the threatening black man.

Of course, any African-American could tell you that our culture sets us up for this and creates the threatening black man in our consciousness without us even knowing it. Orlando Patterson has been criticized for an Op-ed in the Times in which he decries Hillary Clinton's "3:00 am" ad as having a racial subtext suggesting that the threatening black man will go after the sleeping blond children. Well, in my household, my initial response was "this is Bush-like fear-mongering," but that of my lovely wife, Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis, was "this is the trope of the threatening black man." Was that really a conscious effort on the part of the Clinton campaign? It's hard to say, but the majority of us in this country are ill-prepared to see how pervasive racism is. Those that understand that are those that experience it, and perhaps things would be better if we'd listen to them with a kinder ear.

UPDATE: Apparently, Obama will give a speech on race in the campaign tomorrow. If you want see an example of people who are bursting with glee because they feel they can call Obama a racist, and if you have a very strong stomach, read the comments on the post I just linked to.


A Christian Prophet said...

It's not about race. And it's not about Obama's pastor. Barack Obama cannot survive a spotlight on his THEOLOGY. See:

Liam said...

acp --

I'm not sure what to say about your point. If you think anything short of a savagely free market is Marxism, then I would be a Marxist, too. So would be most Americans.

crystal said...

I haven't been paying attention lately to what's going on with Clinton/Obama but did see some headlines ... the monster thing, Frearro thing, Obama's pastor, etc. As far as his opinion of 9/11 and America, I agree with him and so do many liberals and peaceniks, I think.

I'm very mixed up about the racism stuff. I spent much of my childhood in Bermuda where the resident population is Black, though there are white military people and weathy vacationers. My mom married a Bermudian, so my stepfather is Black. It was odd when we moved back here when I was 11 to see people's reactions.

Jeff said...

This is a superb post, Liam. I'd like to run this one past some guys at work who've been throwing this incident up at me.

I wish you had more time to blog. Looking forward to Part II.

Liam said...

Crystal -- that should give you an interesting perspective on things.

Liam said...

Jeff --
Thanks so much... This could be a chance for people to learn more about their society.

I saw the speech today. It was magnificent.

cowboyangel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the post, Liam. Very well done.

To be honest, I haven't been paying much attention to politics in the last week. The Ferraro thing pretty much burned me out. Something about it - and the reaction (or lack thereof) on the part of a lot of people - really depressed me.

I'll have to watch Obama's speech.

I have to admit, I'm a bit disappointed that Obama didn't distance himself from Wright a lot earlier in the process. Strictly from a campaigning perspective, I don't know why Obama didn't do more ahead of time when he knew he was going to be running for president. I was hearing rumors about Wright a long time ago. Why, then, did the Obama team appear unprepared for all of this?

And I didn't know Wright was going to be saying, "God damn America." While you've done a good job of providing context for the comment, I don't think American politics can handle context very well. We're talking about the Willie Horton ad, Dukakis in a tank, Kerry in a swimsuit, a telephone call at 3 AM. Not sure most white Americans are going to take the time to understand the broader concepts behind Wright's damnation of the U.S. of A.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Liam for a thorough analysis of the ROOT of the problem.

I would like to add to your comments and say that RACISM exist in all of us and come in different forms, ACTIVE and REACTIVE. As somebody who had lived in three continents (Africa, Europe and North America) in that order, I must say that the type of racism that exist in the minds of non-white is in a reactive form.

I grew up in West Africa and until the age of 18, when I moved to Europe, I didn't know what racism was, I couldn't even spell the word racism . Africans get excited about foreigners and love to welcome people from other places. It's historically evident that African are very warm towards the Europeans but the white Europeans have problems doing the same.

My experience of living in different parts of the world convinced me that RACISM in its purest form exist in the minds of one race and one race only, THE WHITE RACE.

My question is;

"Why are white people NATURALLY fearful of or threatened by any race that is non-white?"

"Is white people's continuous effort to subdue non-whites related to INFERIORITY COMPLEX inherited from the dark ages of Europe?"

Somebody please tell me why second-generation white Europeans are more Americans than African-Americans whose presence in America dates back to 500 years.

Sandalstraps said...


Excellent post.

I also recently ended my accidental fast from blogging to post on this subject.

KcM said...

"To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America - this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it." -- Cornel West

crystal said...


I don't know if you guys decided to watch The Passion of the Christ or not, but I just tried to watch it agains myself tonight and had to stop about a third of the way through. I hadn't remembered it being so upsetting. Soryy.