Jewish World Review April 1, 2008 / 25 Adar II 5768
Obama's double standard on Rev. Wright
By Mort Zuckerman
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Virtually every dialogue about race is so loaded with sensitivity, anger, and pain among both blacks and whites that the language employed is predominantly the language of political correctness. This is a language of people fearful of misspeaking or being misunderstood, who worry about choosing the wrong words when they are just trying to be honest. Two classic instances followed each other: Geraldine Ferraro suggesting that part of Sen. Barack Obama's political pre-eminence was due to his race (which upset his supporters) and Obama referring to his white grandmother's prejudices as those of a "typical white person" (which upset many whites).
Gaffes like these are magnified by an intense media focus even though it's fair to say the media have been reluctant to challenge Obama so far.
Obama's recent speech on race, which came as an attempt to defuse the dangerous controversy associated with sermons from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, also reflected the complexities facing us. It provoked unusually divergent reactions. Obama supporters extolled the portions that dealt openly and thoughtfully with the broader issue of race in America. They were satisfied that Obama said he doesn't buy into Wright's divisive message. For Obama's critics, the speech did not deal clearly, and for some even accurately, with Obama's more-than-20-year relationship with his pastor.
Facing the issue. Obama's speech was heartfelt and, for the most part, direct. He dealt head-on with the anger that both the African-American community and whites often express in private. Obama described the resentment within the white community over programs intended to improve the lot of African-Americans many of which began just when the living standards of the white middle and working classes began to erode. He talked about the older generation of blacks who remembered the open racism of Jim Crow laws and the difficulties that accompanied the exodus of African-Americans from the South to the urban areas of the North and West. And how those hardships were exploited by some politicians who encouraged a culture of victimization, which in turn prevented many in the black community from dealing with their own responsibilities for their condition. As the writer Abigail Thernstrom pointed out, Senator Obama's statement that the Reverend Wright has a "profoundly distorted view" rejected the notion of paralyzing black victimization and recognized that the challenges that African-Americans face today have more complicated causes than racism.
I've long been astounded by how difficult it is for outsiders to understand the emotional history of the African-Americans and how it affects them to this day. Two illustrations will suffice. One involved a conversation with a major black urban political leader who said he could never support the police because the police beat him and his friends up when he was a child. Another involved an outstanding national leader who justified his cautious policies on the belief that, as the first African-American to fulfill such a particular national position, he couldn't afford to take any risks.
But Senator Obama also spoke to the anger that exists within segments of the white working and middle class who didn't benefit from the fact that they were white. Like immigrants, they had to build everything from scratch and work hard for it all of their lives. Their resentments grew when programs like busing and affirmative action gave preferences to African-Americans that whites never received and when they were told their fears about the explosion of urban crime somehow or other reflected racial prejudice. Obama acknowledged these concerns are legitimate and not necessarily racist for, as he noted, "most working- and middle-class Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race."
As someone who witnessed firsthand the busing crisis in Boston and its perception as an injustice by Boston's ethnic working classes Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and Asians I saw a resentment inspired not so much by the busing of blacks into white schools but by the busing of their children into black schools and neighborhoods. The resentment was inflamed by the fact that the decision and opinion makers, be they in the courts or the leading newspapers, were elites who lived in the suburbs with no connection to the human pain of busing. So it was a relief to see Obama's understanding of how these people reacted. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal rightly described this part of Obama's remarks as "a thinking man's speech."
This is not to say that Obama doesn't support these programs. He believes government should take race and gender into account in university admissions, hiring, and contracting; he opposes any state initiatives that would prohibit using racial preferences to promote diversity; he supports busing and decried the Supreme Court rulings that limited it, so much so that he vowed "to appoint Supreme Court justices who understand the constitutional importance of Brown," the school desegregation ruling.
On the issue of his admiring relationship with his described mentor and pastor, Obama was less forthcoming. He failed to explain why for two decades he allied with a pastor of such convictions unless he didn't regard them as loathsome. Pastor Wright, after all, continually delivered sermons that were hate filled, paranoid, and anti-American. He asserted that America got its "just desserts" on 9/11 and was morally responsible for the attack because of, among other crimes, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though our purpose was to end the war imposed on the United States. The "chickens were coming home to roost," Wright said. He has also promoted a series of fantastical claims, including that the U.S. government gave drugs to black people presumably to enslave them or imprison them and that the government invented aids as an instrument of genocide against people of color. He slurred Italians as "garlic noses" responsible for Jesus's "lynching." Just last year, Wright honored the radical Louis Farrakhan and, as part of a virulently anti-Israel stance, published an article in his pastor's letter giving a platform to Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy leader of Hamas and a known terrorist.
Close adviser. What many people are saying privately, if not publicly, is that they do not understand how a man who gives speeches about moving past the racial divide would choose such a minister and make him virtually a member of his family and his "sounding board" during two decades. Pastor Wright was one of the first people Obama thanked after his election to the Senate; he consulted him before deciding to run for the presidency; and then he selected him as his spiritual adviser.
Contrast this with Senator Obama's reaction when radio host Don Imus uttered his infamous slur of blacks last year. Then, Obama didn't hesitate to say Imus should be fired and asserted, "There is nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made any comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group." But when it came to Pastor Wright, he passed him off as "an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with." This kind of double standard raises serious questions.
Pastor Wright was not some cranky old uncle. He was a public preacher, endorsed by Obama with his continued presence. And a senator and now presidential candidate isn't just an ordinary church member. Doesn't such a public figure as Obama have an obligation to denounce anti-American bigotry as well as those who praise bigots? Wasn't he aware that this kind of preaching doesn't just affect adults but infects and exposes a younger generation to precisely the kinds of racism that Obama says he is committed to transcending? Doesn't it undermine his role as a racial healer when he implies that the inflammatory comments of his pastor were somehow made understandable by history? What else could be justified by this logic?
No one suggests that Obama shares his minister's rage or his deep disgust with America. But many can reasonably say that if any presidential candidate had remained a member of the congregation of a white minister who had preached sermons using the "N" word and espoused the views of the Ku Klux Klan, the public and the press would have been all over the candidate. And then appoint the same hatemonger to serve on a religious advisory committee for a presidential campaign? The result would have been a public firestorm.
And in comparing his unwillingness to abandon his minister, just as he said he would not have abandoned his own white grandmother, Obama ignored the difference between breaking with a relative whose home you occupied as a child and distancing yourself from a religious mentor whom you selected as an adult. You don't choose your grandmother, but you do choose your pastor and your church.
In his speech, Obama finally rejected his pastor's radical views and stated that Wright's incendiary language has the potential to "not only widen the racial divide but...it denigrated both the greatness and goodness of our nation." Alas, he also admitted what he previously had denied, to wit, that he was present when Pastor Wright made some of these outrageous comments. What would have happened to any other presidential candidate who might have admitted such an inconsistency?
Much of Obama's speech covering 400 years of race relations in America was remarkable and thoughtful. It served to reassure many white voters that they had been right in not tuning him out the way they had tuned out other black candidates. It would have been more reassuring, though, if the speech had not come in the context of damage control, for it left the impression that Obama was broadening the subject to all race relations to deflect questions about his two-decade involvement with a radical anti-American.
Nevertheless, Obama's speech clearly affected many Americans who seek to advance the stultified dialogue on race relations. It helped us learn from our history and understand the experience of others. Senator Obama's formidable rhetorical talents and manifest intellectual skills should enable him to address other difficult subjects in what is clearly a brilliant future in public life.
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© 2008, Mortimer Zuckerman