The recent controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments at the National Press Club on Tuesday, April 29 reveal how wide the divide still is between white and black Americans. I stumbled upon his comments while looking on You Tube for Rev Wright’s speech before the NAACP in Detroit the day before. In the National Press Club speech Rev. Wright outlined the prophetic role of the Black Church in U.S. history speaking not only of the work of James Cone (Black Theology of Liberation) and Martin Luther King, but also going back to days when slaves gathered in the woods to meet for worship. He linked this tradition to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and to Jesus who often confronted the Pharisees and other powerbrokers of his day. Following the speech he was asked a series of questions about the controversial statements that had gained him so much attention in the past couple of months. Understandably he defended his statements and did not back down from what he had said previously. He also contrasted himself as a preacher answerable to God from Barack Obama who is a politician seeking to get elected. He pointed out that each was accountable to a different constituency. He was clear, forthright and truthful, even injecting a joke that he would be open to being vice-president.
So I was surprised and disturbed by the news reports that came out today saying he was “bombastic,” “defiant” and “incendiary.” Among his views that were criticized were statements such as these:
• “The government gives them [blacks] 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. 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.”
• “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. . . . 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.” (he also added that he was referring to a statement the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq at the time, Edward Peck, that the attacks may have been a response to U.S. actions in the Middle East).
• Louis Farrakhan is “one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century, that’s what I think about him… When Louis Farrakhan speaks, it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks, all Black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen. Now I’m not going to put down Louis Farrakhan any more than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro…” [quoting Mandela from an interview with Ted Koppel when Mandela was asked about the Cuban dictator] “‘You don’t tell me who my friends are, you don’t tell me who my enemies are.’ Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy, he did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn’t make me this color.
In his rejection of these comment Barack Obama distinguished his worldview for that of Rev. Wright’s. In fact what is at stake here is exactly that: a matter of worldview. For most white Americans such statements are outrageous and radical while for many African-Americans such statements have a ring of truth. While whites and blacks have lived and worked in the same land for 300+ years, our experience of that history is dramatically different and thus we see those events through dramatically different lenses.
For many white Americans it is fine for a President to close a TV address with “God bless America,” but do not ever suggest that God might condemn America for its actions. It is okay to criticize the government for its actions overseas, but don’t ever suggest that this government “of , by and for the people” would also implicate those of us who are its citizens. Patriotism means you not only love this country, but you don’t say anything critical of our consumptive lifestyle, or our expansionist military policies. Furthermore, anyone who is critical of the U.S. or its ally Israel, such as Louis Farrakhan, must be summarily repudiated. And while we can pay reparations to Jews suffering the Holocaust and Japanese-American interned during World War II, let’s not suggest that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow ,segregation and racially based economic oppression do not need to be openly and publicly addressed.
Many of my African-American friends and colleagues would see things otherwise. While many, like Barack Obama, hope to move past the racial divide (as Obama said in his March 18 speech on racial issues in Philadelphia), we can’t move past something we have not as a nation truly admitted exists in the first place. While most White Americans recognize that slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and economic oppression happened, they are resistant to exploring the extent to which these historical realities still impact African-Americans today. Most White Americans don’t see, and therefore find hard to believe, that racial discrimination and marginalization are ongoing and present realities for most people of color in this nation. While there is much work to be done in the African American community around addressing issues such as family breakdown and counterproductive behaviors, like teenage pregnancy and drug abuse, this does not remove the historical and cultural forces that also impact people of color.
Unfortunately, what has happened in the last few months is that Barack Obama’s candidacy has confronted white Americans with the fact that we have not constructively dealt with the racial divide in our nation. The response to Rev. Wright’s comments has only served to bring to light the fact that many white and many black Americans see the world through widely different lenses. Until finger wagging can give way to honest dialogue, the divide will continue to exist and may even sadly widen.