I betcha by now, you’ve seen this: Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Hillary screed.
Obama’s response has got to be the most honest I’ve read coming from racial politics:
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama said, speaking in front of eight American flags. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
And he continues:
“We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country,” Obama said. “But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under theand .”
Obama said anger over those injustices often find voice in black churches on Sunday mornings. “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning,” he said.
I wasn’t surprised. As a person who taught for a couple of years at a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) that was affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal church, I — as well a fair number of my fellow colleagues — were “recommended” by the administration to attend 11am weekly “chapel”, that is, the AME church service that all students were required to attend. So I spent a fair number of Wednesdays, sitting with my two *white* co-workers, hearing the pastor preach and cajole and sing in that pulpit. No, the school pastor himself wasn’t as inflammatory as Obama’s pastor.
But many of the guest speakers were.
What surprises some folks in America, who believe that racism is just a historical fiction that simply hasn’t faded away yet because certain people in society hasn’t progressed enough — what surprises those folks is that it’s fine and dandy to say that race (as a biological fact) doesn’t exist. But as a belief — as an article of faith, an axiom, as a principle — shored up through decades and centuries of prejudice based on physical difference and passed down as gospel through either formal or informal education, one *cannot* say that race as a belief does not exist.
As the well-known saying attributed to Frank Outlaw says:
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Many people in America harbor racist thoughts; perhaps they are secretly ashamed of them, or perhaps — like Rev. Wright — they are not. Perhaps they don’t even *think* they are being racist, because they believe they are in a position of righteousness or knowledge. But changing outward discriminatory behavior through legislation does nothing — NOTHING — to change what’s in a person’s head.
America is a country in which our representatives have passed much legislation, striving for an equitable and fair society. But passing those laws and deciding “Okay, we’ve done our part — problem solved” is as naive as the people who are surprised to hear the anger found in a black church’s pulpit.
One may argue whether race is real or not — and, as people become increasingly biracial/ multiracial as Obama is, one can argue strongly either way. But one cannot argue that racism does not exist — because it does.
And what we need are voices like Obama, who can stand up and take ownership for that — the good and the bad: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community…. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”
Racism is a part of America’s reality. What we Americans have to figure out is what we can do positively and constructively with that reality. To believe it is “those people’s problem” is to be conquered by a greater evil than anything an avowed bigot could ever dream of.
Update: The Economist has a solid analysis of Obama’s speech.