The following very fine article came to me via a friend, the Revd. Noreen Suriner, who is the Interim Rector at St. John's, Northampton, MA.
Mr. Robinson's article is so much wiser than Hilary Clinton's "knee-jerk" response, in which she said that had Jeremiah Wright been her minister she would have (in so many words) left his Church.
Strange that she has said nothing about John McCain and his endorsement by an right wing extremist Pastor!
But Hilary Clinton seems to be saying too much, and thinking too little. Witness her lies ( according to her she "mis-spoke" - what ever that means ) about her visit to Bosnia.
An article by Don Robinson a member of St. John's in Northampton, MA
Turning away from racial enmity
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The past week has been a rough patch in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Just as it began to seem likely that Barack Obama may be in control, we get hit with the controversy over Jeremiah Wright, his pastor in Chicago. Responding, he gives a speech that beckons the nation into a discourse on race.
Obama's style is gentle, but make no mistake. Confronting America's "original sin" will not be a comforting experience.
He framed his speech brilliantly, taking his text from the preamble to the Constitution. (Lincoln set his speech at Gettysburg on the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing declaration that "all men are created equal.") The Constitution aims at a "more perfect union." In 1787, that meant a stronger union among the states. Obama broadened it, invoking the vision of a more perfectly united people.
To achieve a "more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America," he said, we must turn away from racial enmity. "My unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people" convinced him this was possible.
He turned then to Pastor Wright. He repeated his condemnation, "in unequivocal terms," of Wright's divisive preaching. Too often, Wright presented a "profoundly distorted view of this country."
Obama noted that Wright had done much good in his ministry, helping the homeless and those who suffer from HIV/AIDS and strengthening prison ministries. More importantly, he brought hope to the weary and downtrodden, helping his congregation to identify with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, and Ezekiel's field of dry bones. (Wright must have preached about Jesus, too, but Obama did not mention that.)
Obama's comments on Pastor Wright were actually somewhat evasive. For example, in a fiery sermon played endlessly on YouTube, Wright charges that the government deliberately perpetrated the AIDS virus to weaken the black community. This cannot be proven, but a strong case can be made that the government responded to the epidemic very sluggishly and that the black community was the principal victim.
It is a stretch to say it was a deliberate act of racism, but racial attitudes probably played a part. Wright's comments are not groundless, and the passions they express are widely shared in the African-American community.
But do we really want to go there? I am reminded of the difference between a prophet and a politician. The prophet speaks truth to power. The politician seeks the support of 50 percent-plus-one of a given population. It is a different vocation: Frederick Douglass versus Abraham Lincoln.
Concluding his remarks on Wright, Obama said we can dismiss him as a crank or a demagogue, just as we can scorn Geraldine Ferraro as a racist for her ignorant comments about Obama's supposed advantages, being black. But if we stay at this level of discourse, we will never move beyond the dead-end politics of hate.
With a few rhetorical flourishes, Obama could have ended his speech right there. Instead, he plunged into a discussion of "how we arrived at this point." The problems in the "African-American community," he said, are rooted in "inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow."
Legalized discrimination blocked African-Americans from owning property, getting commercial loans or FHA mortgages, kept them out of unions, police and fire departments. This led to shame and frustration, especially among black men unable to provide for their families. The resulting "erosion of black families" produced a legacy of defeat: black men "standing on street corners, languishing in prisons."
Remember the furor when Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to open a discussion of pathologies in the black family? One dares to hope it will be different when a black man does it, though that was certainly not Bill Cosby's experience. We should not underestimate the difficulty of what Obama is attempting here.
Having addressed deep feelings in the black community, Obama made a brilliant move. He called attention to a similar anger raging in many white communities. He sympathized with applicants who are passed over in favor of minorities through no fault of their own. He spoke of immigrant families who have worked hard, only to see their jobs get shipped overseas and their pensions dropped.
Dueling resentments, white and black and brown, distract attention from the real culprits: a greedy corporate culture, a government dominated by lobbyists, economic policies that favor the few over the many.
The remedy? African-Americans must continue to "insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life." (Echoes of W. E. B. DuBois.) But it also means uniting with other aggrieved people: "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant struggling to feed his family." (Coalition politics, in the style of Bayard Rustin.) And it means taking responsibility for our own lives: fathers spending more time with their children, reading to them, teaching them they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. (Self-help, as urged by Booker T. Washington. Obama's tapestries weave many threads.)
As for the white community, it means acknowledging that the ills of black folk do not exist only in their own minds. The "legacy of discrimination" must not be ignored. We must invest in schools, ensure fairness in our criminal system, and provide ladders of opportunity unavailable for previous generations.
The key to this campaign is whether Obama can connect with white voters as he makes the case for his programs - in health care and education, and in a more prudent use of American power abroad. His campaign must be addressed to the needs of the toiling masses.
The last American president to address the legacy of slavery was Lyndon Johnson. As America's cities burned, he gave a series of eloquent speeches calling for a war on poverty and led the way to the enactment of the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Within two years, his party was torn asunder, delivering the South, and eventually the presidency and Congress, to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Now this young senator has bet his campaign on the proposition that we are ready to take the next long step on the road to atoning for the "original sin" of slavery.
Don Robinson writes a monthly column for the Daily Hapmshire Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.