How Reverend Wright was wronged

May 2, 2008

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor examines the corporate media's hysterical coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his recent speeches.

LAST WEEK, the three cops who murdered Sean Bell in a hail of 50 bullets on the night before he was to be married were acquitted of all charges. The media, led by the New York Times, called on everyone to respect the verdict. The Times even lectured, "Anger and disappointment are understandable now, but New York's leadership has changed, and community activists need to absorb that fact before they attempt to heat up reaction."

Barack Obama had a similar message when he was asked for his reaction to the shocking verdict.

The senator responded, "Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time, without benefit of all the facts before me, that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down."

"The most important thing for people who are concerned about that shooting is to figure out how do we come together and assure those kinds of tragedies don't happen again," he continued. "Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and counterproductive."

Rev. Wright's words were twisted by the media to portray him as a crackpot
Rev. Wright's words were twisted by the media to portray him as a crackpot

Politicians and pundits were wringing their hands out of fear that Black outrage over another case of the NYPD getting away with murder might tumble into angry protests and put race back at the center of the presidential campaign.

But days later, the corporate media did just that in their hysterical coverage of several public appearances by Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

While the acquittal of Sean Bell's lynch mob was greeted with pleas for calm and reflection, Jeremiah Wright got front-paged from coast to coast, and dominated the national news for days. Even Obama, who in a speech on race in March had mildly admonished Wright, called a press conference to attack Wright's "rant" as "appalling and offensive."

The New York Times denounced Wright as "racist" and "paranoid." Liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert, an African American, piled on, calling Wright a "narcissist." Even Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper got to chime in, sneering at Wright for "soaking up his 15 minutes of fame."

What else to read

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes regularly for the International Socialist Review. Among her recent articles are "New Orleans Since the Storm: An American Travesty" and "Rediscovering Race and Class After Katrina." Search the ISR for extensive coverage on this topic--for example, "Racism in Jena: The New Jim Crow" by criminal justice reform activist Alan Bean.

For an excellent overview of race and class in U.S. history, with several chapters devoted to contemporary American politics, read Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism provides

Manning Marable's Race, Reform and Rebellion puts the 1960s and '70s civil rights and Black Power movements in the context of the African American struggle against racism historically.

WHAT EXACTLY did Wright say to cause such a crazed reaction, anyway?

After more than a month of media denunciations and racist abuse, Wright came out swinging. He framed the attacks against him as an attack on the Black church and Black religiosity, pointing to a long list of Black religious figures targeted for media and state vitriol--among them, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Moreover, Wright continued to challenge the hypocrisy of the U.S. government. He talked about U.S. support for the apartheid regime in South Africa and for the murderous right-wing contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s; he complained about the U.S. government spending billions on the war in Iraq while people are going hungry in the U.S.; he decried the U.S. sending 4,000 "boys and girls to die for a lie"; and he denounced unfair sentencing in drug cases that has resulted in 1 million African Americans being imprisoned.

Media pundits picked out two portions of the question-and-answer segment of his appearance at the National Press Club as the basis for declaring that Wright is racist and paranoid.

First, Wright refused to attack Louis Farrakhan, saying, "Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery. And he didn't make me this color."

Second, while the Times claimed Wright accused the U.S. government of creating AIDS, what he actually said was more damning:

Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything. In fact, in fact, in fact, one of the--one of the responses to what Saddam Hussein had in terms of biological warfare was a non-question, because all we had to do was check the sales records. We sold him those biological weapons that he was using against his own people. So any time a government can put together biological warfare to kill people, and then get angry when those people use what we sold them, yes, I believe we are capable.

Finally, Wright refused to back away from statements comparing Israeli treatment of Palestinians as apartheid--as former President Jimmy Carter has, and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu as well.

Of course, the media are incapable of engaging and debating Wright's ideas. Instead, like petulant brats, they resort to name-calling.

SO WHY are the media and liberal Obama supporters in a Jeremiah hysteria right now? There are two reasons.

The first is that Obama and his supporters have so far carefully avoided making race a central theme of the presidential campaign. Thus, they fear that Wright's public appearances will engulf the campaign in a discussion about race.

Conversely, the media have been itching to make race the central theme of the election season, so they prioritize and sensationalize coverage of Wright for the sake of creating controversy.

Part of this is for cynical reasons. The media believe their own constructed and static caricatures of working-class white voters as irredeemably racist and unwilling to vote for a Black man--even though Obama has gotten literally millions of votes from white workers, and cut into Clinton's massive leads among white voters in both Pennsylvania and Ohio in the days leading up to the primaries.

When the media got word of Wright's speaking engagements, it pre-judged that white Americans would be offended, and then shaped the story in such a way as to make sure they were offended, by couching Wright as a crazy Black racist.

Yet it is the American media that are craven and racist. They have always had a double standard for African Americans or any people of color who denounce racism and injustice in this country. Now, Obama is discovering--if he didn't know already--that he can run, but can't hide, from race in this country.

If the latest flap about Wright costs him the nomination, it won't be Jeremiah Wright's fault. Obama can blame the media that are driven, if not obsessed, with making Wright the centerpiece of the campaign. The media don't want to talk about real issues like police brutality or health care when they can talk about lapel pins, Farrakhan, and the six degrees of separation between Obama and radicals of yesteryear.

Obama can also blame Hillary Clinton, whose campaign worked for months to give life to the Jeremiah Wright angle. In the last candidates' debate, Clinton wasted no time in dropping the F-bomb--Farrakhan--on Obama, in a campaign where no one else ever has to explain his or her alliances or allegiances.

Why is Obama the only candidate who ever has to explain his association with a pastor? No one asks Hillary Clinton or any of the former presidents about their associations with the anti-Semite minister Billy Graham.

On one of Richard Nixon's White House tapes, Graham can be heard blaming Jews for "pornography" and accusing them of having a "stranglehold" on the media. Yet Hillary Clinton brags about leaning on Graham to cope with her husband's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

And why are neither Hillary nor John McCain asked for a reaction to the verdict in the murder of Sean Bell? Why is it only the Black candidate that is questioned about the police shooting of a Black man?

John McCain got off lightly after he solicited and received the endorsement of nut-job extraordinaire Rev. John Hagee, who believes that Hurricane Katrina was God's retribution for New Orleans because of a gay pride parade there.

And where is the media outrage when their right-wing darlings like Pat Buchanan spew racist hate? Instead of outrage, Buchanan is regularly invited to outfits like CNN and MSNBC as an expert on domestic politics. Well, what did Mr. Buchanan have to say after Obama's speech on race in March?:

"First, America has been the best country on earth for Black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity Blacks have ever known. Wright ought to go down on his knees and thank God he is an American.

Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up Blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the '60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream. Governments, businesses and colleges have engaged in discrimination against white folks--with affirmative action, contract set-asides and quotas--to advance Black applicants over white applicants.

Pat Buchanan's column did not make the front pages. Because when you're white and spew this kind of distorted hate, they call you a media commentator.

Finally, the corporate media and the white elite they represent have never gotten over the image of angry African Americans rebelling in the 1960s. The protests and violent rebellions of the late 1960s have always been cast as the foil to the heroic civil rights movement of the early 1960s, where African Americans wore suits and ties and dresses to protests and conducted nonviolent civil disobedience for the right to vote.

While the civil rights movement was never that simplistic, in the ruling class's campaign to discredit the militancy of Black Power, civil rights is propped up as the respectable struggle, while militant critiques of capitalism and calls for "Black Power" are dismissed as disreputable and irrational.

This is why the media implore us to keep quiet after the verdict in the Sean Bell case, but Jeremiah Wright's speeches constitute an "orange alert" in American politics. Jeremiah Wright's crime is that he is too angry, too Black, too 1960s.

The blowhard media's character assassination of Wright--and the underwhelming coverage of Sean Bell's assassination by the NYPD--explain why Wright has gotten rowdy applause everywhere he goes from African Americans who are sick of the double standards and hypocrisy from the media and cynical politicians.

Further Reading

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