Did the conversation about race come and go with The Speech?
No. Some Democratic backers of Barack Obama and some media (backers
of Obama) want to believe he gave the country a new and heightened
perspective on the issue of race in America, and put the controversy of
Pastor Jeremiah Wright to rest. They are wishing it away.
The analyses and commentaries are all over the place, folks are
still trying to figure out how much of a problem we still have with
race in a country that largely thought we had moved beyond those
divisions, especially with the candidacy of Barack Obama. There are a
lot of interesting essays out there, but this one by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is particularly good for its respectful scrutiny and keen insights.
Obama’s Philadelphia speech in response to the furor
generated by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s preaching was in many ways
brilliant and admirable…Is there any other national politician today
capable of offering in public such a candid and personal reflection on
an issue of such great moment?
But, let’s take a closer look at that speech, says RJN.
Slavery is, politically speaking, the “original sin” of
our national founding, just as Obama says. And he is surely right in
forthrightly condemning the “incendiary” words of his pastor. The great
offense is not in the Reverend Wright’s “God damn America.” Biblical
prophets called down the judgment of God on their people. But they
invoked such judgment in order to call the people to repentance. They
spoke so harshly because they had such a high and loving estimate of a
divine election betrayed. The Reverend Wright—in starkest contrast to,
for instance, Martin Luther King Jr., whose death we mark next week—was
not calling for America to live up to its high promise. He was
pronouncing God’s judgment on a nation whose original and actual sins
of racism are beyond compassion, repentance, or forgiveness. He
apparently relishes the prospect of America’s damnation.
Which focuses the lens of this scrutiny more sharply.
Perhaps the single most telling statement in the
Philadelphia speech is this: “I can no more disown him than I can
disown the black community.” The most reasonable interpretation of that
statement, maybe the only reasonable interpretation, is that the
Reverend Wright represents “the black community.” This ignores the
great majority of blacks in America, who are in the working and middle
classes and participate fully in the opportunities and responsibilities
of the American experience.
The senator lends his prestige to the claim promoted by sundry race
hustlers that Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, and Bill
Cosby, along with millions of other black Americans, are not black
enough to be part of “the black community.” One can understand why a
Harvard law-school graduate born in Hawaii with a black father from
Kenya and a white mother from Kansas would, for political and perhaps
personal reasons, seek the street credential of having “roots” in a
militantly black sector of the intensely race-conscious city of
Chicago. But complicity in the explicit slander of America and the
implicit slander of most blacks in America is a very high price to pay
for a ticket of admission to “the black community.”
Parsing down the speech even further, Neuhaus takes up the jarring
point about how alegedly ordinary pastor Wright’s rhetoric and tirades
are in the black experience in America, still.
In his speech, Obama reminded us that eleven o’clock on
Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. He
might have done something about that by joining one of the racially
integrated churches in his New Hyde Park neighborhood. But of course
that would not have given him the “black street creds” that he needed
for political, and perhaps personal, reasons. In saying he could not
disown the black community represented by the Reverend Wright and his
church, Obama, however inadvertently, invited his supporters to join in
giving new respectability to old stereotypes. The message was and is:
This is how those black folk are. Get used to it.
There’s a lot of squirming still going on over this eruption, this
revelation to white America that some simmering (festering, may be more
like it) resentment lingers.
It’s true that white folk have spent decades learning
the protocols of respect, sensitivity, and fair-mindedness in dealing
with race. But you expect black folk to reciprocate by “acting white”?
You’re forgetting who was the victimizer and who the victim.
It’s not even that white America is asking black America to
‘forget’. It’s that we all painfully worked through some wrenching
decades of reconciliation with our divided past, and so much of white
and black America had moved on, together.
By reviving historic stereotypes, Senator Obama’s speech
and the uses to which it is being put has dealt a severe blow to race
relations in America.
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