Reverend Wright changed everything. Just not in the way one might expect.
I know some people are saying his defamatory comments are going to spell the end of Obama. Some people are saying it’s going to make him “unelectable.” Give me a break. Something like this is always going to be the end of some candidate. It never is. The John McCain – Vicki Iseman scandal was going to kill McCain’s electability. When was the last time you heard of that on the news? Voters have notoriously short memories (which is usually a bad thing), and I don’t think anybody’s going to use what his pastor said six and a half years ago to decide their vote’s going in the McCain column. There might be some people who are going to vote for Hillary instead of Obama due to this, but I seriously doubt it’s going to be some huge wave of support over to her side.
If you make the argument the nomination is tied now, it might make a difference. I don’t think that’s an accurate argument; I think Obama has to really blow this, and this isn’t going to do it by itself.
These remarks aren’t even new news. Reverend Wright is not a new figure in politics; he helped organize the Million Man March so his name’s been out there for well over a decade now. It’s hard to figure out why it has just now been blown up. The nearest I can figure is right before this happened the New York Times ran a story about how Obama rescinded his invite to Wright to give a speech at his nomination announcement due to remarks he had made in the past. This probably got some reporter wondering about what comments he made, and then everybody was off to the presses.
At any rate, it’s probably better for Obama that it happened now than eight months ago, because he certainly has much more weight and can absorb something like this much more easily now.
But though I think this will blow over, and probably much more quickly than most suspect, it did change something in a very substantial way. As a white man, I hate to say it so bluntly, but I think it’s most succinct. Barack Obama became black today.
A lot has been made of race in this election, but it hasn’t really been about race, too. One thing that amazes me is that everybody just accepts the fact that he’s a mixed child; his father was black but his mother is white. Even ten or fifteen years ago people might have held hope that a black man could be President, but certainly not a mixed man. They were the “bastards of the bastards” in the American public’s eye. Disdain for them was far more over-reaching than disdain for the average black person. I remember. If you were black you could be accepted in school; if you were mixed you could not. And now it’s not even mentioned. I think that’s an incredible sign of the progress we’ve made.
Obama was also considered to be “not black enough” to win over black support at first. I’m not sure exactly how that works. Nobody questioned whether Hillary was “woman enough” or Romney “Mormon enough” or McCain “grizzled enough.” But before Barack Obama had to break the race barrier he had to prove it applied to him.
Lately the rhetoric has been amped up a little bit. The Obama side would say it’s coming from Clinton, the Clinton side says it’s coming from Obama, and McCain swears up and down that he had no idea it was coming. But it has been growing.
But today Barack Obama really pushed it right out in the open. Giving a speech in response to “Reverendgate” (my term; you owe me ten bucks each time you use it), Obama for the first time sounded not like a candidate running for President, but a black candidate running for President. He talked much more openly and candidly about the role that racial discrimination has played in American politics, life, and culture. He talked about the anger that discrimination and it lingering effects has caused among the black population, and that this “anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.” He also talked about the resentment many whites feel about affirmative action and welfare or about being perceived as racist when trying to confront things like crime in black communities, and that these feelings are also kept bottled up but have “helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.” He also pointed out that this causes a “racial stalemate” which often times results in the roots of stalled progress for all ethnic groups being disguised in a battle for racial supremacy.
He says this about blacks and whites, but it would ring just as true for blacks and Latinos, or whites and Latinos, or Italians and Asians, or Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, or Israelis and Pakistanis, or any two groups of people whose fights, trials, and tribulations span beyond the time of any personal memories. These are not fights we should be having amongst ourselves, but among the histories and realities which perpetuate them. But it’s easier to hate than to love and forgive. That’s human nature. Isn’t that the primary battle Jesus told us we to wage? Not over whom should reign, but over what should reign? Not over our actions and attitudes but over what forces will help shape our actions and attitudes?
Obama tried to say that he has a heritage and family history which makes him uniquely qualified to rise beyond these distinctions and provide people with the tools to fight those battles, and that his pastor helped provide him with this experience, as well. He also said his pastor was all too often guilty of falling on the wrong side of the battle. He pointed out that Reverend Wright was too willing to concede the current landscape was not conducive to the changes necessary to battle the complaints he bemoaned from the pulpit. Even while people in his church were changing the landscape as he spoke. One of them was even going to run for President someday.
But Obama left his diversity at the beginning of the speech. Some people were saying this might be his “Kennedy-Catholic” speech or his “Romney-Mormon” speech. This was his Martin Luther King speech. And it wasn’t like the speeches he’s given before, where he heralded all the benefits of a world as King saw it. Those could have just as easily been given by a white man. I think Bill Clinton gave a few of those himself.
Even though King spoke to whites and black and all races and nations, you never forgot he was a black man. I never got the feeling he dreamt of a day when blacks and whites would be one and the same. He dreamt of a day when blacks could be black and whites could be whites and everybody was just fine with that. And this was not yesterday’s Barack Obama talking about the role of race in America; a talk of race from an impartial observer. This was a black man talking about the role of race in his life. Barack Obama still has a long way to go before he can claim to be even close to the game-changer King was much longer than being elected President. I’m not prepared to give King’s mantle to Obama, and as a white man it’s not mine to give. But this was Obama’s attempt at playing King’s game.
I loved the speech. I thought it was an inspiring, awe-striking speech. It went beyond where any Obama speech had gone for me. I thought that it was brilliant that Obama decided not to hide behind the fact that he didn’t make these comments. But rather he decided to push them right back in our faces. That he wasn’t going to run from the argument and change the topic again. Because, “if we do, I can tell you that in the next election we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”
I think he was condemning himself a little bit, for allowing the politics of the moment to interfere with this message. He made himself into another party guilty of this trend. I’m not sure how long he will buck it, but he made a good start today.
I’m also not sure what impact this will have on the Presidential race, either for the Democratic nomination or the general election. I am sure that whatever effect there is, it will be from this speech and not any given by Jeremiah A. Wright.
He quoted a paragraph from his book, Dreams from My Father. I’m going to quote it here because I think it applies much more broadly than a description about Obama’s church. Though it was designed to show how he felt at Reverend Wright’s mass, it could have been written by me. I’ve gotten the same feeling in a solemn Catholic mass. I’ve gotten the same feelings outside of church. I think it’s a universal call that all of humanity’s history has culminated in an ever-changing pallet of beauty, but also of struggle. From a completely religious standpoint, it showcases that the lessons in the Bible aren’t always those of how to please God, but how to please humanity itself. That our collective history can provide something better than just rules and regulations governing the best way to live our lives, but a common thread to weave the peace of all future generations out of.
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”
All those people he mentioned; David, Goliath, Moses, Pharaoh, the Christians, and Exekiel; probably none of them were black. And they certainly weren’t white. But they are no longer defined in the context of the race they were born into. They were us.