Today’s quote comes from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, retired former Pastor of Barack Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ. This is one of those comments that was so “controversial” it forced Obama to denounce it as “inflammatory and appalling” and also to remove Rev. Wright from a minor position in Obama’s campaign. It was made in a speech that Rev. Wright gave at Howard University in 2006. Let’s examine it closely:
“Racism is how this country was founded and how this country was run. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.”
“Racism is how this country was founded” is a true statement. Go take a look at the Constitution if you doubt me. Blacks who were slaves in the South are deemed as 3/5ths of a “white person” for purposes of apportioning congressional representation. The Constitution also expressly permitted the importation of slaves until 1808. The word slave is not mentioned, but the euphemistic references to “all other persons” who were not free makes it clear to what the document was referring, as do records of the debates regarding the Constitution at the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
“We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.” I grant you that this is hyperbole, but hyperbole that is justified by our own history. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of independence believed blacks to be an inferior, cruder, more animalistic race of humanity. Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, made statements regarding the inferiority of the black race, and initially believed the problem of freeing the slaves could only be solved by re-settling them in a colony in Africa.
In the post-Civil War era, we have a long history of excluding blacks from white society and from white privileges, despite the language of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Of course, we have the era of Jim Crow in the South, but there was an contemporaneous, though less often noted version of this in the North and West; the aptly named “Sundown Towns” which kept blacks from residing in them both formally, under the law, and informally, through the use of violence and intimidation, and often the simple refusal of real estate agents to sell homes in those places to anyone who wasn’t white.
Nor should our long history of violence against African Americans and other minorities be ignored. From lynching to the Klu Klux Klan, from the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps to today’s use of such camps to hold Latinos suspected of being illegally in the United States, from the best selling apologia for racism “The Bell Curve” (which claimed that the lower IQ scores of African Americans was hereditary) to John McCain’s casual use of the racial slur “gooks” during the 2000 Presidential campaign, our society offers demonstrable evidence of a continuing streak of white supremacism among the dominant white majority. We try to hide it, we try to pretend it doesn’t exist, that we have “moved on” and live in a post-racial era, but that is a lie.
Indeed, the types of smears and other attacks against Obama’s candidacy have consistently had racist overtones. Yet, he is the one who is expected to “denounce and reject” the statements of anyone even marginally connected to his campaign and to immediately remove them from any position they hold, while the two remaining white candidates in the race, McCain and Clinton are permitted to retain key persons and accept key endorsements from people who have made outrageous remarks. The best example is perhaps McCain, who is allowed to accept the endorsement of controversial conservative pastors who believe it is our destiny wars to eradicate Islam from the face of the earth, who claim that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment against New Orleans for homosexuality, and who stated after 9/11 that the attacks were the fault of “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America …” I ask you, whose religious supporters have made the more controversial and outrageous remarks?
There is only one explanation for why Obama was forced to kowtow to the American media last night and repeatedly repudiate Reverend Wright’s statements while McCain skates away relatively untouched. That explanation can be described in one word: racism. Hagee, Parsley and Falwell are white conservative Christians. They are permitted to do and say outrageous things with little fallout for them personally or for the political candidates they endorse and support. Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on the other hand, is black. Anything the least bit “controversial” he says, no matter how grounded in fact, is simply too much for white Americans to hear. And so he and his opinions are used to attack Barack Obama in ways that the views of Falwell, Hagee and Parsley, far more extreme and controversial white ministers are not used to taint John McCain.
Reverend Wright may be guilty of hyperbole, but he told the truth. We are a nation which continues to treat minorities differently than whites. You only need look at one statistic to see that this is the case: the infant mortality rates among African Americans versus the same mortality rates among non-hispanic whites. There are literally hundreds of studies which show a continuing discriminatory effect on African Americans today, but no one in the media ever makes much of them. Instead they are far more excited about a story that confirms their own stereotypes about angry, ungrateful black men, such as this controversy about Rev. Wright. It is a narrative which fits with a prejudicial mindset regarding African Americans which they have held since childhood. A mindset which they are often unaware is based on bigotry.
Because that is how our society operates. We still work to segregate the races, we just no longer use the law as the primary force to accomplish that end. We whites still grow up with prejudicial views of African Americans, because that is what our families and our media pass down to us. If the racism is less overt in many cases, less open to the public eye, that does not make it any less real, nor any less a destructive force in our society.
Reverend Wright simply committed the ultimate sin for a black man in our country. He told the truth about the racism that still exists in the hearts and minds of many white people. And that is why he has been castigated, and that is why Barack Obama has been forced to denounce and reject his words. Because white people are in denial. We don’t want to hear about this evil, we don’t want to see this evil, and we sure as hell don’t want any “uppity negro” speaking about this evil.
What happened to Reverend Wright and Barack Obama only confirms the truth Rev. Wright spoke back in 2006. And that is the saddest comment on our society today that I can imagine.