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Election Perspective

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Barack Obama and His Pastor—First Not Black Enough—Now is He Too Black?

March 31st 2008

Clarence Page Headshot
Clarence Page

Hey, what happened to all those people who wondered whether Barack Obama was “black enough” to win black votes?
 
Now all I hear is people asking whether he’s too black to win white votes. Those who walk the highwire of crossover politics—black to white and back again—must strike a delicate balance. It was in the process of learning that balance that Barack Obama met the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Obama was learning how to be “black.” This much is for sure, he’s learning more all the time. One lesson he’s learning these days is how hard it is to be black without being thoroughly misunderstood by whites.

Years ago, Obama was trying to gain a better understanding of black folks when he met Wright in the first place. Ryan Lizza described the encounter in an excellent profile in the March 19, 2007, issue of The New Republic. He wrote that Wright was unimpressed when Obama the community organizer first approached Trinity United Church of Christ. “They were going to bring all different denominations together to have this grassroots movement,” explained Wright, a white-haired man with a goatee and a booming voice. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Do you know what Joseph’s brother said when they saw him coming across the field?’” Obama said he didn’t. “I said, Behold the dreamer! You’re dreaming if you think you are going to do that.’”

Obama’s problem was that he was trying to build a confederation of churches but he didn’t have a “church home” of his own. That means a lot among black church folks. One reverend put it to him like this, according to Lizza: “What you’re asking from pastors requires us to set aside some of our more priestly concerns in favor of prophesy. That requires a good deal of faith on our part. It makes us want to know just where you’re getting yours from.”

Imagine Obama, a 27-year-old Ivy League graduate who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia with a white mother from rural Kansas, shopping for a church on Chicago’s Southside. He was intrigued by Trinity’s guiding principles—what the church calls the “Black Value System”—which included a “Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.”

Ironically, contrary to its militant Afrocentric image in Washington’s punditocracy, some of the older pastors warned Obama that Trinity was for “Buppies”—black urban professionals—and didn’t have enough “street cred.”

Having visited Trinity and having friends who are long-time members, I personally find it has a refreshing mix from the upper class to the underclass. I am particularly impressed by its healthy proportion of young fathers. In too many black churches you find old folks, children and lots of women in between, and you leave wondering, where are all of the young men?

The mix of prophetic activism and traditional old-time black religion appealed to Obama as it appeals to many of us in the black community. The black church was founded in slavery as an underground church, a haven from the plantation. Black slaves and freedmen established their own congregations mixing Africa-rooted traditions with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the liberation imagery of Moses and the Children of Israel.

White pundits who grumble that they don’t go to church to hear politics obviously don’t feel the need for politics. The black church has a different tradition. While many black preachers speak only of personal salvation, many others speak of the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. Among other legacies, this prophetic wing of the black church produced the Underground Railroad, slave uprisings and the modern civil rights movement. Obama found the cultural community of black churches to be more pliant than simple nationalism, more sustaining than his own brand of organizing.

Trinity gave Obama an extension of the street organizing education he had received at the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by late community organizer Saul Alinsky, which emphasized a focus on people’s self-interest.

“Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful,” Obama told Lizza, continuing, “’We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.’ Those are just words. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas.”

What about Wright’s words? Yes, I’m troubled that Barack Obama’s spiritual mentor made remarks such as, “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

But I’m more troubled by polls that show a substantial percentage of black Americans also believe that the government lied about AIDS. About half of black Americans surveyed in a 2005 study by Rand Corporation and Oregon State University believed that AIDS is man-made. More than a fourth said it was created in a government lab, and 12 percent actually claimed that the virus was spread by the CIA. The paranoids include black church members, according to polls as far back as 1990, when a New York Times/WCBS-TV News poll found that 35 percent believed AIDS was a form of genocide. Overall, one African American in 10 believed the AIDS virus was “deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people” and an additional 2 in 10 thought that might be so.

Based on my experience with black folks, sadly that sounds about right. Wright’s words may sound wacky to outsiders, but they resonate among a lot of black folks—and not just in Chicago.

“I don’t always agree with what Rev. Wright says or how he says it,” a female member of Wright’s congregation e-mailed me in response to a column I wrote. She didn’t think I had given Wright a fair shake. She added, “But a lot of what he says is the truth.”

“Do I agree with what he said about AIDS being created by white people and given to black people?” she went on. “I don’t know.  I hope not.  However, we live in a country that did conduct the ‘Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment’ on 399 black men between 1932 and 1972.  Those black men were used as human guinea pigs.  We live in a country that has no problem segregating poor and usually minorities in segregated and typically substandard housing and sending their children to substandard schools with substandard teachers. Does this happen to White American also? Yes, but it happens to us at a larger rate in relation to our population in this country.”

The trouble with such endemic anger, fear, distrust, resentment and suspicions of the government is the health risks that it poses. Information is power. Ignorance about AIDS is death. Even the professionals know that. “It makes my job harder because I have to devote time and energy to addressing those concerns,” the director of an AIDS counseling effort in Brooklyn told one newspaper. When she speaks to black groups, she said, “there is almost always someone in the audience that has the answer: ‘AIDS is part of a plot, a white man’s plan to eradicate black people.’ If I dismiss it out of hand, then those people who believe in it have turned me off.”

So when I try to figure out the big question of Barack Obama’s pastor drama—and why indeed did he stay with that church and minister for 20 years—it is not hard for me to picture the Illinois senator as a Chicago version of that Brooklyn AIDS director.

Obama, too, was looking for ways to bridge the divide that could help him organize black folks on Chicago’s south side. Wright had found a way. What has been lost in the inflammatory rhetoric of talk radio and cable TV and Internet bloggers is that Rev. Wright grew his church from 80 members in the early 1970s to more than 6,000 now on its membership rolls today with 3,000 seats in its sanctuary. Trinity is among the largest churches in the predominately white United Church of Christ denomination. Wright inspired Trinity to create more than 100 ministries, including a “young fathers” ministry and, yes, a major HIV/AIDS prevention, detection and treatment ministry.

Also lost is the side of Wright that ABC’s Nightline showed in a video clip on the evening after Obama’s now famous Philadelphia speech on the issue. In striking contrast with the fiery minister replayed endlessly on YouTube, the clip showed a subdued reverent Wright praying, “Oh, God, we come from many different places and different races, but we are of one race, the human race.”

Unfortunately, a fiery sound bite goes around the world before a video clip of a quiet, reflective Wright gets out the door. So does another nugget of truth that Obama himself pointed out: Even in his most inflammatory sound bites, Wright never attacked anyone else’s race. He only attacked racism. But when tempers and nostrils are flaring, it’s not a good time for a thoughtful discussion about semantics.

The irony of Obama’s pastor problem is how the senator’s critics have turned on him for doing what his fans have always wanted him to do, help bridge America’s differences of race, ethnicity, party and interest groups.

I, for one, don’t find it extraordinary that a man who has promised to talk with Cuba, Iran and Venezuela without preconditions would have no trouble talking with a friend of Louis Farrakhan, another divisive figure in black America.

When I see Obama being pressed to choose between Wright and white voters, I am reminded of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, being pressed by his Republican arch foe Alderman Edward Vrdolyak to denounce Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. The alderman’s goal was to drive a wedge between Washington and his Jewish supporters. Mayor Washington did back then what Obama has done today, he condemned Farrakhan’s inflammatory words, but not the man himself. What credibility would Mayor Washington have with black folks who, like Wright, had seen Farrakhan’s movement redeem addicts, prostitutes and prison gangsters on whom the rest of society had given up.

In such circumstances, black folks tend to condemn the sin—in this case the sin of anti-Semitism—but not necessarily the sinner.

I myself criticized Mayor Washington for that in my Chicago Tribune column. Farrakhan was not worth the bad blood his words stirred up between blacks and Jews, I wrote. But Washington had a lot more constituents than me to listen to. Like Obama, he reached out to Chicagoans on all sides of the racial, ethnic and religious divide. Mayor Washington rallied supporters to avoid being distracted or bamboozled by wedge issues like Farrakhan. He kept his coalition together and won election and reelection in a city that was less than 40 percent African American. And he managed to do it without letting his rivals drive wedges between blacks and Jews in his coalition.

Like Mayor Washington, Obama put the Rev. Wright’s hurtful comments in the context of Wright’s generation and its experiences. He put himself in the context of a young community organizer, raised in a white world, yet still learning the political ways of the black community in Chicago’s South Side. “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes,” admitted Obama in his big Philadelphia speech on the topic. “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed,” Obama added.

And yet, “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—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.”

Was Obama throwing his grandma “under the bus,” as Fred Barnes on Fox News Channel asserted?  No, Obama was merely pointing out the misguided views we’re willing to put up with in our loved ones, knowing that their attitudes are passing from the scene, along with their generation.

“The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said. “It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country, a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old, is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

The good news, Obama pointed out, is that “America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

With that, amid great applause, he moved smoothly from what divides Americans to the common concerns of jobs, schools, health care and housing that should unite us.

So how does Obama bridge the canyons of distrust between blacks and whites without losing the trust of both? Quit the church? I don’t think that will solve Obama’s pastor problem. His critics will not let it rest. If he’s gone, they’ll badger the airwaves by asking why he stayed so long. Some would even have the audacity to razz his departure as a cynical political move. That’s what the conservatives want. So what if Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other conservative evangelicals can blame 9/11 on liberals and pro-choice activists and accuse feminists of practicing witchcraft and still be welcomed into the Bush White House. Yeah, so what? Black folks are used to being held to a different standard, aren’t we?

Or Ron Paul can speak of how 9/11 attacks came in response to decades of American adventures overseas and get away with it. But when Obama’s minister says the same thing, Obama is castigated.

Yes, black folks are accustomed to having to be twice as good and twice as smart to get half as much, so the Obama scenario does not look all that new.

Obama’s not asking me for advice, but if he did, I’d tell him to tough it out. He found the best way to do it. He realizes he gets in trouble when he tries to run a conventional campaign, as he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Conventional politics is Hillary Clinton’s specialty. Back to insurgency mode, says Obama.

So far, that means Obama turned to his special strength, his powers of persuasion through oratory. After years of generalities, he stood up and addressed the nation with specifics. He changed the conversation. You want to unify America, America? First, we need to talk.

Clarence Page is a an award-winning journalist, a syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board for the Chicago Tribune. He can frequently be seen as a panelist on such network shows as Meet the Press.


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