I’m back from my mini-vacation. I’m glad I took some time off, as this nominating process has been a grind. Newswise it doesn’t look like I missed much. It was a very tough couple of cycles for the Obama campaign, but this is a perfect time to have these types of news cycles. I do want to say a couple of things about the Jeremiah Wright issue.

Most Americans do not and have not spent much time in the urban African-American community, and their impressions of that community are uninformed and based on prejudice. I don’t mean prejudice of the bigoted kind, but more of the natural kind that occurs when your main exposure to a culture is filled by the 6:00 PM ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ local news coverage. Suburban, exurban, and rural America does not have a good grasp on what makes the black urban culture tick, what makes it function, and how that culture looks at the world.

When confronted with the raw emotion of the black pulpit, mainstream America has a tendency to recoil. It’s true that in the inner city there are some beliefs that are not anything more than amateur conspiracy theories. A long time ago Bill Cosby suggested that the government introduced AIDS “to get after certain people they don’t like.” This theory was echoed by other celebrities like Spike Lee:

“I’m convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease. They got one thing wrong, they never realized it couldn’t just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out. So, now it’s a national priority. Exactly like drugs became when they escaped the urban centers into white suburbia.”

The theory took on an anti-Semitic color in some quarters:

In 1988, Steve Cokely, an aide to then-Chicago mayor Eugene Sawyer, was fired in response to his delusional claim that the “AIDS epidemic is a result of doctors, especially Jewish ones, who inject the AIDS virus in the blacks.” In spite of being as acutely absurd as it was profoundly debasing, Cokely’s accusation actually caught on with many fellow black racists and anti-Semites.

According to Larence D. Lowenthal’s 1993 op-ed Understanding Farrakhan & His Organization, upon learning of the plight of his frantic hero, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan admonished Sawyer — who is himself black — for dismissing his “innocent” assistant, proclaiming that,

“Cokely spoke the truth. Jews complained because the truth hurts. I know this man Cokely. I know if he said it, he’s got the stuff to back it up.”

It’s understandable that ‘mainstream’ America recoils from such rhetoric, especially when it passes from a fringe to the mouth’s of mayoral aides and respected celebrities. But such extreme cases work to delegitimize much more valid conspiracy theories. Let’s look at one of Jeremiah Wright’s controversial statements.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: (2003) See, government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”? No, no, no. Not God bless America. God damn America–that’s in the Bible–for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating your citizens as less than human.

Wright, here, is building from a simple conspiracy theory that the government introduced drugs into the inner city and then passed harsh drug penalties, in order to (at a minimum) diminish the political power of the black community. A lot of the circumstantial support for this theory is contained in Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance reporting on the CIA looking the other way as the Contras brought crack cocaine into California during the 1980’s. A lot of the argument here is not over the results but, rather, specific intent. If we look at the results of Nixon’s War on Drugs, strict sentencing guidelines, and a lax attitude about combating drug smuggling, there’s no question that they have been catastrophic to the black community. According to recent Department of Justice statistics:

At yearend 2006 there were 3,042 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 487 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males.

You can see more of the the disproportional impact of the Drug Wars on the black community here. Whether this is caused by some pernicious plan or just uninformed indifference, it is certainly something of great concern to the black community and their spiritual leaders. And they do speak out about it with predictable regularity. If white suburban kids were getting swept up in the criminal justice system at anything close to the same rate, we’d see white ministers railing against the system as well.

The most famous disconnect between the perceptions of the black community and ‘mainstream’ America was the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. Without getting into the details of that case, one strong explanation for the disconnect was white America’s lack of experience with their police planting evidence on innocent civilians. But, as was later exposed in the Rampart Crash scandal, LAPD evidence-planting was going on at epidemic levels at the time of the Simpson trial. Of course, there has never been any credible proof that evidence was planted in the O.J. case, but we can’t understand why the jury was willing to judge credible doubt about the evidence in that trial without understanding how prevalent such subterfuge was at the time.

While much of white America has the luxury of turning their eyes away from the sorry underbelly of America history, urban blacks (like Native-Americans) don’t have that option. This is also true in foreign policy, where the victims of rogue American policy in, say, Latin America, have to live with things like Operation Condor, even as our schoolchildren are taught a sanitized and uplifting version of our history that is intended to breed belief in our moral righteousness and inerrancy. This is a problem that Howard Zinn attempts to mitigate in his A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.

This is also what Rev. Wright was getting at with this:

(September 16, 2001) We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.

We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards! America’s chickens are coming home to roost!

Once again, the conscience of ‘mainstream’ America is shocked by the suggestion that the nuclear attacks on Japan were morally ambiguous. Set that aside, and look at the rest of it. Here is how Steve Coll put it in a 2005 Washington Post article:

Since the late 1980s and certainly since 1991, bin Laden has seen the United States as the principal invader of the Muslim world because of its support for the Saudi royal family, Israel and other Middle Eastern governments he labels apostate. In often tedious debates with comrades during the 1990s, he has argued that only by attacking distant America could al Qaeda hope to mortally wound the Middle East’s frontline authoritarian governments.

His inspiration, repeatedly cited in his writings and interviews, is the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he says shocked Japan’s fading imperial government into a surrender it might not otherwise have contemplated.

Rev. Wright’s observations (on September 16th, 2001) seem to have been a lot more accurate than Bush’s ‘they hate us for our freedom’ pablum. For a long while it was deemed unpatriotic to even debate the motivation of the 9/11 attacks. To in any way explain them was, in some sense, to lend justification to them. But Rev. Wright was familiar with the grievances of the Muslim world and understood why the most radical elements might see Hiroshima as a model and a justification for attacking the American homeland. If there is a problem with Rev. Wright’s comment, it isn’t in the facts, but in the tone. American support for Israel or the Apartheid regime in South Africa can be rightly critiqued, but there is nothing wrong with being ‘indignant’ at the mass killing of civilians in response.

The problem, in part, is that America did not know and was not told that the attacks were in response to U.S. foreign policy. We were not, in fact, indignant that the ‘chickens were coming home to roost’ because we denied that there were any chickens in the first place.

If we confine ourselves to foreign policy, this is a divide, not between black and white America, but between left and mainstream. To even bring up our foreign policy errors is deemed ‘America-hating’ by the right, and is lazily swallowed by the press and the mainstream (of both parties). Here’s a sample from NRO’s Mark Steyn:

By the way, Jonah, [Bill] Bradley’s wrong: in today’s political culture, it’s not “easy to be angry” when a kook preacher tells his congregation “God damn America”. Community spokespersons pop up on TV to assure you that “it’s a black thing” that the other 90 per cent of Americans don’t get, and never can, and thus it would be racist even to try. Meanwhile, sophisticated white liberals of the Bradley ilk pass off explicit, toxic anti-Americanism as a kind of harmless alternative lifestyle – no different from, say, vegetarianism – that only redneck boors would be so vulgar as to get steamed up about.

In the face of such vitriol, Barack Obama has no choice but to condemn his pastor and, thus, participate in the whitewashing of American history. In large part this is the fault of Rev. Wright, who is guilty of going beyond the four corners of a legitimate critique and dabbling in paranoia. He delegitimizes his message in the same way that Michael Moore did with his 98% accurate Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary.

This is something we must live with. We can’t operate in a political wonderland where rhetorical excess gets a free pass. What I find most fascinating about the whole Jeremiah Wright brouhaha is what it says about Barack Obama. All along I have felt that Obama is progressive because he comes out of and is familiar with the culture of black America. I have consistently argued that his post-partisan messaging is more than a political aspiration…it is a necessary self-inoculation against the inevitable backlash of mainstream America towards a truly progressive candidate.

His association with Rev. Wright proves to me that he is totally conversant with the progressive critique of American history. Being conversant is incredibly valuable, but it doesn’t mean that he suffers under any paranoid delusions, and he certainly is not perpetuating any.

Obama’s job is to take the positive progressive vision and drop the rhetorical excess. It’s the hardest job I have ever seen attempted in U.S. presidential politics, and he has been masterful in pulling it off. Much of my frustration has been aimed at white progressive bloggers that seemed to think he could run successfully as a partisan progressive. He never could have done that successfully, and I hope the Rev. Wright scandal has finally shown them why that is the case.

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