Thursday, March 20, 2008

Black Thoughts on Jeremiah Wright & the Audacity of Whiteness

One Email Forum Reacts to the Furor Over Pastor Jeremiah Wright

"...there is a tradition in the black church for pastors to use colorful analogy and hyperbole when giving sermons. But that only works when folks are being logical, and we all know logic flys out the window when we think about white people and their perception of us. This can kill him, [Obama] if not against Hillary, in the general election. This is race-baiting, and it's going to work."--KK, member of a black email group reacting to the breaking news of the Pastor Jeremiah Wright video.

It has been over a week now that videos of Pastor Jeremiah Wright began circulating around the internet like a virus, finding its way onto national media outlets and setting off one of the biggest firestorms of what has been billed as an historic presidential campaign season. The grainy images of the popular black minister, one-time mentor topresidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, shows him railing against the racial injustice of America--and pulling no punches.

In assessing the rise of Barack Obama against opponent Hillary Clinton, Wright said his former mentee "knows what it means living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people — Hillary would never know that, Hillary ain't never been called a n@gger."

In a speech given after 2001, Wright is seen recounting US foreign and domestic policy blunders as a pretext to 9/11. "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."

In another sermon that quickly became the most widely quoted, Wright says the US government wants blacks "to sing God Bless America" despite enduring years of continued abuse and oppression. "No, no, no," declares Wright forcefully, "God damn America!"

After a weekend of making the rounds on talk shows to explain and denounce the words of the man who married him and baptised his children, Sen. Barack Obama gave a much anicipated speech to address the issue. As before, Obama stated that he equivocally denounced his pastor for "views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike."

Yet at the same time, he refused to disown his pastor, and seemed to be giving America--white America anyway--a brief history of black existence in this country. Obama pointed out that the Constitution "was stained by... [America's]...original sin of slavery." He went on in stark terms to recount issues of legalized discrimination, Jim Crow, disfranchisement, racial wealth inequality and more that have frustrated and restricted black existence. "For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years," he said. "That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table."

Media reaction to the speech varied. Mainstream outlets generally praised it as a good speech. Political pundits gave it high marks, especially for Obama's bravery to "elevate the discussion" about race. Yet most wondered if it would hit home with much of white America, particularly rural whites in places like Pennsylvania. Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, in typical fashion, denounced the speech and has since gone on a full on Obama-smear campaign. FOX's Sean Hannity--in similar form--went as far as to call Obama a racist and an anti-Semite, though for reasons not at all clear. Recent polls have shown that the entire racially charged event has diminished Obama's lead over Clinton, but not nearly as bad as many predicted. The question remains, was his speech enough? Did it soothe white fears? Can he recover from the fallout and backlash?

Much like Pastor Wright's commentary was tucked away from whites--who at times seem blissfully unaware of the goings-on in black America--so has much of black reaction to the entire furor been missed. While television news broadcasts tend to feature black news pundits who must choose their words carefully and never stray too far from the accepted narrative, a flurry of activity on the topic in the black virtual community offers a wider insight. On message boards, blogs and within black-created email groups, articles and editorials are passed back and forth as the issue of Wright, Obama and America--particularly white America--are discussed and debated.

The following account follows the writings on one black email forum. Made up of about at most 18 or more members, they hail from careers as varied as computer engineering to public school administration. Some come from higher learning, others from the corporate business world. They are from different regions of the US, with some tracing recent ancestry from across the black Diaspora. They are single or married, in both intra and inter racial relationships, of varied religious perspectives and sharing differing politics. Most do not know each other personally outside the virtual community, and there is usually as much heated debate between them as their is agreement. There is no distinct purpose for the forum, other than to talk, vent, share stories, jokes or news articles. Topics can range from politics to science fiction to Hip Hop to child rearing. Many were notinitial supporters of Sen. Barack Obama, with some previously backing Sen. John Edwards, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Hillary Clinton or no candidate at all. Most have never voiced any party affiliation, and more than a few might probably call themselves Independents. As an interesting cross-section, they shed insight into some of the discussions in the black community over the past week.

*In disclosure, the architect of this blog space is a member of the email group and his posts are included within

For many blacks who paid attention to politics, such as those on the forum, at first sighting of the Pastor Wright video, there was a sense of brewing trouble.

"This is huge," KK warned the forum as the story broke. "Because if I know anything aboutwhite people, I know they cannot digest the pastor's message without fear...When I watched the Good Morning America show, I felt something in my chest hurting. Not so much because I support Obama , but, because I knew this is the kind of smear, this is an attack on being black and having a conscious black perspective on America. This is the kind of divisive attack that is going to create a greater divide between white people and black people."

Fellow member VJ agreed, expressing a growing sense of frustration over what she saw as censorship of black emotions and political perspectives.

"It's sad that in this day and age, we continue to be the only group that is not ALLOWED to speak of our experiences in the sense that critically analyzes the power dynamics that continue to oppress us," she noted. "We know Obama is running for President but somehow, because he is, we all are not allowed to mention the conditions that leave us disempowered. Wright's message that Obama is not white is true. Obama is not rich is true. And Obama is not privileged is true. Isn't that what drew a lot of folks to him in the first place?"

For many on the forum, the issue itself was not so much about Wright or Obama, but rather what was seen as the hypocritical media news lens through which the story was being viewed. Online articles like that of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) showing media bias in the treatment of controversial religious figures aligned with GOP hopeful Sen. John McCain, like the Christian Zionist Rev. JohnHagee , made their way to the forum as evidence. The title of one popular black news blog was noted approvingly for its cynicism about sensationalist race-baiting journalism: "Media’s New Attacks: Focus on Obama Pastor, FAUX News Leads the Charge."

Not all media coverage however was condemned. Articles and news stories that seemed
to show more objective coverage like a Newsweek piece on Pastor Wright's Trinity Church, was given the benefit of the doubt with only a few criticisms. More typical however for the forum were articles and comments fromprogressive news sites and blogs that equally lambasted the negative media coverage. The Nation magazine's Christopher Haye's piece "Obama, Politics and the Pulpit," that decried the hypocritical "media staged collective freakout" over Pastor Wright hit the forum to praises of "Amen!"

Anger was not levelled only at the news media and the white mainstream, but what some saw as inaction on the part of black leaders, activists and the general community, towards the continued smearing campaign of Pastor Wright.

"I’m extremely disappointed that Black Leadership around the country has allowed the media to smear this brother without uttering a word in his defense," lamented SB as he forwarded an article from The New York Times. "Have we become so brainwashed, afraid for our jobs, or comfortable that we have forgotten where we come from? Does hearing the truth bring back too many painful memories because we believe we have risen above all of that? ...if I had been in Brother Wright’s congregation listening to those sermons, I would have been giving him a standing ovation too! We all know that Sen. Obama is being forced to condemn a man that he loves and respects. And if he could do so without torpedoing his campaign, he would tell America the truth. I’m sorry America is shocked by Rev. Wright’s words but if the shoe fits...?"

To that end, there was a great deal of wrestling over what many knew Senator Barack Obama would have to do, and what he should do. While there seemed to be an understanding that some denouncing would have to be made, for political expediency, there seemed to also be a countering notion that Pastor Wright should not be hung out to dry for expressing thoughts to which so much of black America could relate.

"To his credit, the new pastor of Wrights church did not back down nor apologize," AF pointed out in an email. "I also saw this brother on a FOX channel on a Hanna and something program that was also defending Wright... But if you listen carefully,Obama did not really put wright down very much. He was coy about it and said he was not at the church when Rev Wright made the statements..."

Disagreements broke out among forum members over terminology used to describe Wright.

"I think it is inappropriate for us to call wright AN ANGRY BLACK PREACHER," AF stated in response to a comment by KK. "That kind of language only helps to legitimize the obama bashing."

"Just for clarity," KK answered back. "I do not think he is [an] angry black preacher. He didn't say anything that I disagreed with. He was preaching and not giving a political speech which is why the things he says have a theatrical flare and are entertaining to his congregation..."

"Our people just got the universal right to vote a little over 40 years ago," KK recounted further. "The cops were active participants in the drug trade in our communities. That means the govt actively contributed to the destruction of our families and communities. My aunt was a dope fiend whose life and murder can be connected to that proactive destruction, my father grew up in a form of defacto slavery as the oldest son of a sharecropper in North Carolina, my childhood friends did long stretches in prison for the central park jogger rape which they never committed, on someScottsboro boys type stuff. The mere mention of these facts would have white folks calling for my arrest, because it makes me appear angry and that makes them uncomfortable and afraid. But I'm not angry, I'm aware, and I'm not gonna rewrite history, or pretend to not know what happened and is happening just to make white folks comfortable. I believe that is more or less the position that Pastor Wright takes and he was in a position to speak his mind because he was only asking for things from people who saw it the same way."

Obama's pivotal and historic speech on Tuesday was examined by the forum not only for what was stated, but the reaction it received.

"It ain't the speech I'd give," member DG stated, "but I ain't runnin for president. It is however, the most *real* speech (even with my frownin at some parts) on race and such, I've ever heard from a presidential candidate...he even sends a barb at the media. I think the white folks who ate him up before, will eat up this speech... strategically wise. His enemies however, I suspect will do what they always do."

"If whites can't accept that speech well he would not have been president anyway," another forum member CB said.

Member KJ worried over how much compromising Sen. Obama would be forced to do, in order to appease white fears:

"The other day I made a comment, 'How much 'Black' Obama will be left by the time he gets to the White House if he starts compromising more and more?' Distancing himself from Wright, not calling Ferraro a racist, I get. But one always worries about the tipping point from prudent and careful to compromised. But this morning, I was saying, 'He needs to just get defiant, say I disagree with Wright, many other candidates and officials (white) have trucked with worse people than me, and I won't reject him. Let's move on.' And if America can deal with that, fine. If not, then it's not time for a BlackPrez and I'd rather his candidacy die than his character be sold out. You can't be Black in America without having some lingering anger over racism, or speaking bluntly sometimes about the unfairness of this country. And you shouldn't have to squash all that just to get elected."

KJ's initial judgment of Obama's speech included a mixture of approval and criticisms:

"Thought he meandered and danced just a bit when explaining why Blacks feel that way. A bit of an apologist tone when he kept putting Wright and others in "that old generation" that he seemed to want to leave in the past.... I think that characterization was a bit simplistic. Political, perhaps, but too simplistic. It's way more complex than than, as NPRs Michelle Norris noted when she said people need to examine why *so many* Blacks in churches across the country feel that way.... BIG POINTS for him saying he could no more reject and dismiss Wright than he could reject his own Blackness. *That's* more of the speech I would have given, but as you say, I ain'trunnin' for Prez."

"I *hope* this will die," KJ said, "the same way all those white candidates for Prez--in both parties--have gone to Bob Jones University to speak, have belonged to racist golf clubs, etc. But as OJ showed, it's still like a boogey man for them and the thought of Blacks carrying the smallest bit of anger or outrage at four centuries of racism just seems to make them cringe."

That afternoon, member TM forwarded an article by political science Professor Michael Dawson titled, Was It Too Little Too Late: Why Obama's Brilliant Speech May Not Help Him. In it, Dawson applauded Obama's speech, but pointed out that "while addressing race it equated white racial resentment (which scholars know is really just a more polite label for white racism) with the black anger and skepticism that comes out of past and current racial discrimination." Dawson however concluded, "those comments will not satisfy those large segments of white America that harbor racial resentment....even though he strongly and correctly argued that today's racial disadvantage is based on the white supremacy of the past, we know that many, many whites do not connect the black situation today to either the injustices of the past or the present."

This article set off a series of comments on the forum, that would span several days.

"To be frank," member DG said in response to the article, "we all know Obama's speech was meant mostly for white America. He has risen to his position because he has tried to transcend (at times to a fault) the issue of race in the US. For white America, his appeal came because he could be perceived (in their eyes) as "quasi-black"--or, as Chris Matthews of MSNBC put it so bluntly, he didn't carry all the sordid history of America's past that offends tender white sensibilities by telling them truths that make them uncomfortable (slavery,jim crow, etc). It means never taking whites out of their relative "comfort zone" by making them feel any bit of guilt or responsibility. Nothing Rev. Wright said shocked many in black America (except perhaps the *way* it was said), because we are long used to the Duboisian idea of the black double consciousness. Cynicism and patriotism go as hand in hand with us as Tuskegee syphilis's experiments and Tuskegee Airmen. The effectiveness of his speech is going to be gauged on how white America reacted to it...revealing at once the ugly reality of power and race in this country."

As the week wore on, and the Pastor Wright story became the favorite of both conservative and mainstream press, frustration gave way to anger and disgust. This was probably best captured in a lengthy post by KJ late Wednesday night.

"I have spent my whole life around whites, at school and on the job, and I can tell you, I have heard *way* worse stuff out of the mouths of Christians and humanitarians and my "friends" than what Wright said. I've had people make hateful, racist jokes (sexist too) and say "it's all in fun". I've been subjected to tirades of how Blacks are ruining America from people who grew up in homes three times the size of mine, yet who see nothing hypocritical in their whining while simultaneously telling me to quit blaming the world for my problems. I've had white friends say to my face that blacks dating whites was wrong. I've had dear friends literally recoil from me in confused anger if I've dared broach the subjects of racism, my dad's battles back in the day, or how America still ain't quite right. It's as if I were trying to make them drink gasoline or something."

"But if America still can't have that conversation, if they still don't have the ability to shut up and let us really *talk* for a change and *listen* to us, then so be it. If they can't look in the mirror and see that ugly reflection, finally *face* that pain and responsibility and yes, guilt, and take some of this crap off our shoulders, then it's their loss. I don't want to have a President of color who can't have that conversation with the people. And if Barak loses because of this, then America really is, still, sadly, damned. Maybe it ain't "God damn America", maybe it's just "America damn America". They're doing it to themselves."

By the time AF forwarded an article to the forum by Roy Exum called The Angry White Man, recounting the importance of white male resentment in American politics, members were just about fed up. KK posted a lengthy retort to the article and the entire idea of "justifiable white anger."

"That angry white article was the biggest load of crap I've heard in a while. These white men are angry because they are ignorant, they have no comprehension of capitalism and therefore hate mexicans and blacks who 'take' their jobs; and mention nothing of the corporate bosses who closed the factories and moved them to Mexico. They aren't sophisticated, though they may be college educated. They are coddled, spoiled men, who have never been spoken to bluntly before. When they are criticized they become angry. They have no conception of history or US's role in shaping the world of the last 100-200 years, so when they hear anything negative about the country they love, they call it unpatriotic."

"They think and express their political thoughts in platitudes, and they are easily manipulated by the news media. They gather much of their info from Fox news. They were duped by dubya in the last 2 elections, and this is how you know they aren't sharp. Yeah, they're angry, but so is my daughter when i snatch a pair of scissors out of her hand. Their anger is misplaced, and I am disgusted everytime i hear about an angry white male. These are white men who only perceive their anger as legitimate."


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