The making of a scapegoat

March 28, 2008

If Rev. Jeremiah Wright used angry rhetoric, perhaps it's because there's still a lot in American society to be angry about.

RACE AND racism have always been the most incendiary elements in American politics.

In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that it is the single most important factor in the current configuration of American mainstream politics. The modern Republican Party owes its Southern and conservative "base" to its recruitment of the anti-civil rights Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party.

Sen. Barack Obama's frontrunner status for the Democratic Party presidential nomination is finally testing those verities of U.S. politics. An African American candidate with a message crafted to appeal to a "post-partisan"--even "post-racial"--America is on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination in an election year that is likely to yield big Democratic gains.

Obama's success has driven his opponents crazy. And they have responded with all manner of attacks, not the least being playing the "race card." Banking on the assumption that injecting race into the election will undermine Obama, Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Republicans have increasingly reached for that card.

THAT'S THE only way we can understand the controversy surrounding the videos of sermons by Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which surfaced on the Internet and 24-hour cable networks earlier this month.

In the highly edited clips that hit the airwaves, Wright is shown to denounce American racism, suggest that the U.S. bore some responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and shout "God damn America."

These videos didn't emerge out of thin air. They were a calculated effort to damage Obama's campaign--a product of "opposition research." Whoever is ultimately responsible for having pored over hours of video to excerpt a few seconds of fiery rhetoric, the impact was to make Obama have to answer for his pastor's words.

This serves two purposes for Obama's opponents. On the one hand, making Obama have to answer for Wright means he isn't talking about the war in Iraq or the economic crisis facing ordinary Americans, or any other issues that matter.

More sinisterly, the media-fanned Wright controversy is aimed at raising doubts about Obama. Voters are being cued to ask themselves if Obama is really an "angry Black man" who doesn't intend to be a president for everyone. This is the kind of veiled appeal to racism that Republican (and many Democratic) politicians have perfected for years.

The Clinton campaign may have little to say publicly about Wright and Obama, but we know from a New York Times report that Clinton aides are lobbying Democratic superdelegates with the case that Wright's comments make Obama "unelectable."

And following on Bill Clinton's earlier attempts to pigeonhole Obama as a "Black" candidate and the racist rantings of Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro, any claims by the Clinton camp of "clean hands" should be treated with contempt.

This flap over Rev. Wright--and we are likely to hear a lot more over the next six months--is even more contemptible when the charges against him are investigated.

He has been called everything from "anti-American" to "a racist bigot" (by Ferraro--so consider the source). From these caricatures, you wouldn't know that Wright is a Marine Corps veteran, a widely recognized scholar and theologian, and a respected advocate for the poor on Chicago's South Side.

No doubt these attributes played a role in his being invited to participate in the 1998 Washington D.C., prayer breakfast that President Clinton used as a platform to perform an act of contrition over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The idea that Wright is a Black separatist is even more absurd when you consider the fact that his and Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, is part of the United Church of Christ, a predominantly white denomination.

But the hypocrisy and malice of Wright's critics doesn't end there. One video that has been played repeatedly shows Wright, in a sermon given after the 9/11 attacks, shouting "the chickens have come home to roost." Wright's attackers say this shows he is "anti-American" or a "blame America firster."

In fact, we have the Huffington Post to thank for posting an extended clip from the sermon that puts the passage in context.

Wright's comments about 9/11--which he describes as an "American tragedy" and an "unthinkable act" in the sermon--are actually his reflections on the statements of former Ambassador Edward Peck, whom Wright had seen earlier in the week on a Fox News show!

Peck, a white career diplomat who served in the U.S. mission to Iraq under President Jimmy Carter, had outlined the Middle Eastern peoples' grievances against the U.S., and told the Fox interviewer that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had no links to Osama Bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks.

Wright concluded his commentary on Peck, which he clearly called a "faith footnote" to the main religious message of his sermon, with these words:

A white ambassador said that y'all, not a Black militant, not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice...The ambassador said that the people we have wounded don't have the military capability we have, but they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them.

WRIGHT'S OTHER major sin, according to his critics, was to use "angry" rhetoric to denounce the long history of American racism.

Now, there can be debate on the most effective way to denounce racism. But can anyone with a straight face challenge Wright's core message that, despite obvious evidence of racial progress, there is still racism in America?

And if Wright used angry rhetoric, perhaps it's because there's a lot to be angry about. A March 17 statement from the Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, puts the hue and cry over Wright in the proper perspective. It's worth quoting an extended passage:

Many of us would prefer to avoid the stark and startling language Pastor Wright used in these clips. But what was his real crime? He is condemned for using a mild "obscenity" in reference to the United States.

This week, we mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war conceived in deception and prosecuted in foolish arrogance. Nearly 4,000 cherished Americans have been killed, countless more wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqis slaughtered. Where is the real obscenity here?

True patriotism requires a degree of self-criticism, even self-judgment that may not always be easy or genteel. Pastor Wright's judgment may be starker and more sweeping than many of us are prepared to accept. But is the soul of our nation served any better by the polite prayers and gentle admonitions that have gone without a real hearing for these five years while the dying and destruction continues?

We might like to think that racism is a thing of the past--that Martin Luther King's harmonious multiracial vision, articulated in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and then struck down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis in 1968, has somehow been resurrected and now reigns throughout the land.

Significant progress has been made. A Black man is a legitimate candidate for president of the United States. A Black woman serves as Secretary of State. The accomplishments are profound. But on the gritty streets of Chicago's South Side, where Trinity has planted itself, race continues to play favorites in failing urban school systems, unresponsive health care systems, crumbling infrastructure and meager economic development.

Are we to pretend all is well because much is, in fact, better than it used to be? Is it racist to name the racial divides that continue to afflict our nation, and to do so loudly?

How ironic that a pastor and congregation which, for 45 years, has cast its lot with a predominantly white denomination, participating fully in its wider church life and contributing generously to it, would be accused of racial exclusion and a failure to reach for racial reconciliation.

Recent articles

Thursday, July 19th

Wednesday, July 18th

Tuesday, July 17th

Monday, July 16th

Friday, July 13th

Thursday, July 12th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives