Obama and Rev. Wright

Obama and Rev. Wright

The Obama saga has been interesting to follow.  He has been attacked for everything BUT being black.  He has been accused of being a closet Muslim, asked to reject AND denounce the endorsement of Minister Farrakhan, and now not only to publically renounce statements made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but to stop attending his church and back away from Rev. Wright.  (Note:  the same request is not made of John McCain for his connections with and endorsement by such pastors as John Hagee and Rod Parsley).

As someone who was part of the whole counter culture, anti-war, pro civil rights movements of the 60’s (I graduated from High School in 1964), I see lots of parallels (particularly in the hypocrisy and double standards) in current discussions about Obama and Rev. Wright’s comments and those that were talked about back in the 60’s and 70’s.

In listening to the television news it would seem that the “common belief” is that we have transcended racism, and this puzzles me.  Although there were gains made during the civil rights movement, they have not been as far reaching as anyone might have hoped.  At least people are not being lynched and even those who think about black people as n…..s, don’t say the word out loud.  But, we still have a long way to go, and unfortunately, race still matters.

Carefully reading through the thousands of articles that have been written on the most current issue of the statements of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s continued membership in Rev. Wrights church, two things become obvious very quickly – that many of us have forgotten our history of patriotic dissent, and – that there is a very different reaction to all of this on the part of white Americans and black Americans generally.

Negative reports as expected from Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and all the usual suspects who immediately jumped on the AIDS statement (conveniently forgetting about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as an example of why African Americans might be skeptical about diseases disproportionately affecting African Americans) , the “God damn America” quote, and the “chickens coming home to roost” quote (although how this is different from saying that America’s foreign policy has put the nation in peril, I don’t understand).  They disapprove of Rev. Wright, his statements, and Obama’s speech, although little time is spent discussing the truth or falsehood of any of Wright’s statements.  They also see Rev. Wright’s statements as being anti-American and unpatriotic.

Black commentators saw things very differently – Rodgerick Williams saw it as HONESTY “We need to discuss what has been done and we need to discuss what we will do in the future and what we will do to make American wrongs right. I have served 7 years in the United States Army and 4 years in the Air Force before I became too ashamed to take money from an organization that kills so many people of color for the purpose of financial greed and imperialism. I have seen the image of American policy up close, and the image has not always been beautiful. America is a wonderful country, and like all good organizations- America has some bad people and some bad policies. Americans need to realize that all in America is not perfect. Some Americans hate criticism. We need to embrace criticism. We need to embrace evaluation. Everyone at every job gets evaluated to be sure that they will perform their jobs better in the future and America and its powerful people need to welcome this criticism from its citizens and look forward to doing better.”

Edward J. Blum, a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University and author of “W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet” and “Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898,” suggests that while some Americans may be understandably offended by Wright’s divisive remarks, those remarks are part of a long and storied tradition among African-American church leaders who have forged Christian ideologies and rhetoric to condemn racial discrimination. 

Dwight Hopkins, a University of Chicago theologian who has been attending Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for years said: “Wright loves America … That’s why he’s so angry. Angry because the nation does not deliver on its promises and its possibility.”

Charles Coulter said that: Attacks on Obama and Jeremiah Wright are ludicrous“And if Sen. Obama were to totally distance himself from every black person over the age of 30 who has at one time or another said or thought God damn America, he probably could hold his next campaign rally in a phone booth.  If you don’t like Obama, fine. If you don’t like his policies, fine. But let’s not waste any more time over a made-up issue.  Let’s get back to the issue of how to make this country a success for all of its people—black and white, rich and poor, woman and man.”

Obviously, there is much more to this difference of opinion about Rev. Wright’s comments than focusing on a few sound bites would tell.  Almost immediately many respectable people jumped in to defend Rev. Wright.

Judging Rev. Wright on a few selected sound bites makes no sense.  In the midst of all of this Texas Christian University Divinity School still plans to honor Rev. Wright.  In a statement on its Web site: “Contrary to media claims that Wright preaches racial hatred, church leaders who have observed his ministry describe him as a faithful preacher of the gospel who has ministered in a context radically different from that of many middle class Americans.” Black Dallas ministers defend Obama’s pastor.  Obama pastor’s words ring familiar in Chicago.  The new pastor at Obama’s church has defended Rev. Wright, as have the members of the congregation

Obviously some of us have forgotten our history.

Frederick Douglass gave a Fourth of July speech in 1852 in which he said: “Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wails of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” He goes on to calls American conduct “hideous and revolting” and accuses white Christians of trampling upon and disregarding both the constitution and the Bible. He concluded his sermon with the words, “For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

Martin Luther King gave a speech against the Vietnam war in 1967 in which he said: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.  …  Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

Perhaps they need some remedial reading – perhaps James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from 1962, Stokeley Carmichael’s Black Power speech from 1966, W.E.B. DuBois who said:  “The cost of liberty is less than the cost of repression.” or even Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience in which he said:  “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ‘75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.” Or, Harry S. Truman who said“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

We might remember that even Albert Einstein’s patriotism was questioned because of his stand against racism

How this difference of opinion is handled will influence race relations in the U.S.

As Edwary Rhymes pointed out in Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble: America’s Anti-Americanism“One cannot let patriotic fervor and nationalistic sentiments blind us to the total scope of American history. Mingled with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” are the signs that say: “colored” and “white.” Fused with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” are the laws and policies throughout American history that dictated that we were anything but equal. We must understand that America stands as a paradox of realities. And if we understand that, then it isn’t very difficult to understand the words and tone of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Disagree with his ultimate conclusions or the tenor of his sermons, if you will, but it should not prevent us from an honest and open accounting of American history. Let it further be understood and recognized that Jeremiah Wright enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in the Navy during a time when Black churches were being bombed and burned to the ground; when Blacks were being killed and brutalized for trying to exercise their right to vote; when Blacks were being told where they could and could not live and all with the complicity or indifference of the government at all levels. The common belief is that our enlisted men and women protect and defend the liberties that we enjoy which means that Reverend Wright was ensuring rights that he as a Black man did not even benefit from. His story is not uncommon (we see in the movie Tuskegee Airmen that Black officers in WWII had to give up their seats on a train to German POW’s in the South). After the wars, in 1918 and in the 1940s, some Black veterans who would not take off their uniforms were lynched. They had been out in the world, fought for their country, handled weapons, been accepted abroad in a way they never had been at home, and had a different idea of their humanity than Jim Crow would have recognized. Lynching was used as a method to remind Blacks of who they still were. They had survived the bullets and bombs over and in Germany, Italy, France and the thanks for their patriotism and sacrifice were a tree and a rope and their bodies swinging between heaven and earth. And yet they still enlisted and fought and served. To have your humanity questioned while you wore the uniform and to have your patriotism impugned by those who never served is a bitter pill to swallow indeed.  …  So if in the face of this preponderance of evidence America is not denounced or rejected; if in spite of the sins mentioned we still call for context; if we conclude that these transgressions are only part of the story and not the whole; then why is this same standard not applied to Reverend Wright? The historical and public record shows us that America, at times, tried to damn her darker-skinned children long before the pastor damned it. If I can, with immense joy, recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence; if I can, with passion, embrace the truths contained in the Gettysburg Address; if I as a Black & Native-American man, when I enlisted in the USMC, could hold up my right hand and take an oath to defend a Constitution and a nation that has, over the centuries, not always protected and defended me, then what is America’s problem?”

An editorial in the Black Chronicle The Gospel of Ignorance noted:  “If Obama, the “ideal Negro”, cannot run a race with integrity and hope without being torpedoed by this insanity, then what hope is it for the rest of us? If political operatives and the main stream media refuse to allow this Black man (Obama) to be judged solely on his ideas, and not by non-issues and the politics of distraction, then how can I, in good conscience tell my 14 year old son and my 11 year old daughter that in this nation, their nation, they can be anything that they aspire to be – even President of the United States?”

Hope for the future?

The most hopeful thing to come out of all of this was noted in a NYT article Groups Respond to Obama’s Call for National Discussion About Race “Religious groups and academic bodies, already receptive to Mr. Obama’s plea for such a dialogue, seemed especially enthusiastic. Universities were moving to incorporate the issues Mr. Obama raised into classroom discussions and course work, and churches were trying to find ways to do the same in sermons and Bible studies.” Pastors in Detroit see in this debate a hope that reconciliation may be ahead.  A Salt Lake Tribune editorial says Obama’s speech is a ”call to transcend the divisive politics of race in order to build a more perfect union in the United States.”

An editorial in the Jamaica Observer thought this was an example of God working in mysterious ways “… what we see is a rare opportunity for Americans to face one of their most pernicious sins – that of unbridled racism – and bring it out in the open, in a way that it has not been done before.  …  there may be a greater purpose for this turn of events, because it has provided the US with an unprecedented opportunity to face this terrible problem. We would like to believe that God has a hand in it.”

As Jim Wallis pointed out in Healing the wounds of race “Barack Obama should win or lose his party’s nomination or the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country and the U.S.’s role in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in the U.S. That would be a tragedy for all of us.”

I for one am hopeful that at some point Obama will re-open this discussion and it will lead to a national discussion that may allow us to once again move forward on civil rights issues in the United States.


The American Muslim Community’s “Obama” Problem, Firas Ahmad

another understanding of Rev. Wright’s message from the Daily Kos

Attacks on Obama Highlight Racism and Islamophobia, Sheila Musaji

Black Professionals See Obama’s Trials, Gains as Reflection of Their Own

Church Officials Say the Rev. Wright’s Message Taken Out of Context

Competing Visions in American Politics:  Obama versus McCain, Dr. Robert D. Crane

Fissure Points Along America’s Religious and Racial Mosaic, MPAC – In rejecting the comments made by Rev. Wright, Obama stated that the pastor’s remarks “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this count…a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” By making this remark, Obama associated hatred and radicalism with Islam, a connection that is offensive and caustic to the Muslim American community. In a post-9/11 world, where law-abiding Muslim Americans are subject to intense scrutiny and who find that their civil liberties are increasingly challenged, it is irresponsible for Obama to link Islam to perversity and hatred.

Full text of Obama’s speech on race

Glowing Reviews For Obama’s Speech On Race

Healing from a truth that hurts (racism in Americ)

How the Obama/Wright Debate Gets Religion All Wrong, Mark Oppenheimer. 

Invited to Wrestle in a Racial Mud Pit, Obama Soars Above It

Jeremiah Wright in context

Jesus taught radical ideas in his day, too, Donna Wood

Local clergy say pastor’s devotion, deeds overlooked

Mainstream Racism Only Becomes An Issue When It’s Convenient:  Only Blacks, Muslims and “others” required to repudiate “their” bigots, By Ray Hanania http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/mainstream _racism_only_becomes_an_issue_when_its_convenient/

The Media Repeats Stream of Lies About Obama, Ari Berman.

News bite doesn’t sum up pastor’s life work, Rev. Nancy Rockwell

Obama/Kerry Incident Proves “Muslim” Is the New “N” Word, Sheila Musaji

Obama urges U.S. to grapple with the race issue

Obama speech brings range of reactions

Obama, Muslims, the Potomac Primaries and a Changing America, Tariq Nelson

Obama, Romney, Bigotry, & Slander, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Obama’s pastor and the Politics of Patriotic Treason, Jonathan Walton

Open Caucus: On Race and Delegates

Race, Faith, and Politics, Roland S. Martin

The Real Rev. Wright: The Footage Fox and the Other Networks Won’t Show

Reza Aslan on Bush, Palestine, and Barack Obama

Rev. Rod Parsley one of McCain’s spiritual guides http://www.alternet.org/blogs/peek/80436/

Roundup of reviews on Obama’s speech by MSN

Should John McCain reject and denounce Minister John Hagee?, Anisa Abd El Fattah http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/should _john_mccain_reject_and_denounce_minister_john_hagee/

Talking about race after Obama speech

Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Wright

Where the rage comes from

Wright is the real victim of pseudo-scandal