Ari Kelman: So Pastor Wright Would Be Controversial If He Were White?





[Mr. Kelman is Associate Professor of History, University of California, Davis.]

Yesterday, Ezra Klein had this to say about the uproar over Jeremiah Wright:

If Jeremiah Wright were white, it would be a very different story, but a story just the same. The comments of Wright’s that have really driven the national conversation were not particularly race-focused. Rather, they were very, very far left — strong restatements of the traditional left wing critique of American imperialism, a dismissal of the idea that America is always and everywhere motivated by virtue, and explicit sympathy for the blowback hypothesis that suggests that though 9/11 was obviously unjust, it was also a predictable eventual consequence of our actions.

So here’s the thought experiment: If in 2004, it turned out that John Kerry’s minister of 20 years — a man who had been like a father to him, who had married Kerry and Theresa Heinz, and who figured heavily into Kerry’s autobiographical book — held the same opinions as Wright, how big of a deal would it be? My sense, as we’re seeing with the furor over Obama’s laughably casual relationship with Bill Ayers, is it would still be a firestorm. Americans recoil from the Chomskyite critique, and any Democratic candidate whose personal relationships implied a sympathy for that worldview would have a tough time of it. In fact, it looks like this is the narrative Wright is really fitting into — a narrative that ranges from Ayers to lapel pins to Obama not holding his hand on his heart during the national anthem — rather than a story of racial strife. That’s not to say it hasn’t reawoken racial fears, and it’s certainly not to suggest that Wright won’t be used by racists in the election, but I think you can imagine this being a political problem if the preacher was white, too.

At first when I read this, I found myself thinking: Ezra’s high. And also: he’s parroting Republican (and Clinton camp) talking points. But then I re-read the post and realized there’s enough to what he says that I couldn’t just dismiss his argument with a wave of the hand and a “pfffft.” First, he’s not suggesting that race isn’t a factor in L’affaire Wright; he’s just claiming that Obama’s relationship with Wright still would have been a story even if Wright, and, one presumes, Obama were white. And I suspect that’s true enough. No matter Wright’s or Obama’s race, the RNC or the Clinton camp would have tried to use Obama’s “radical” preacher against him, just as they’ve recently used Obama’s “close” ties to Bill Ayers as a cudgel.

Which leads to Ezra’s second point: that the Wright brouhaha pivots on the fact that “Americans recoil from the Chomskyite critique.” Hmm. I suppose that’s partly right, too, though I’d guess that most Americans wouldn’t recognize Noam Chomsky if he showed up at their house for dinner wearing a “Linguists Rawk” t-shirt and mumbling about anarchism, hegemonic media empires, and generative grammar.

Still, what Ezra seems to be missing is that racial anxiety is driving the Wright story. The charge that Wright is “radical” is just a culturally palatable stalking horse for: “ZOMG, there’s a black man running for president! Hide the women and children! The darkies are coming to take our country!” It’s not just that Wright’s views on American foreign policy have more in common with Chomsky’s than John McCain’s, it’s also that he’s black, so likely can’t share the values of white America. And, by extension, the same must be true of Obama. Or so goes the argument. This, it seems to me, is pretty classic race-baiting, more subtle than appeals to Negrophobia used to be, perhaps, but certainly in the same vein of the American political tradition.

In “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass asked:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Extraordinary antebellum rhetoric, a powerful weapon in the arsenal of a former slave turned abolitionist. For a presidential candidate in 2008, though, not so much. It’s not that Douglass’s questions and critiques don’t still resonate; they do. There’s just not much room for such views on the capaign trail. The country is probably the poorer for it; certainly our political discourse is impoverished by a broad unwillingness to listen to neo-Douglassian voices. But that’s just the way it is.

No wonder, then, that Wright’s and Obama’s critics have tried to bind the senator, through his longstanding relationship with his pastor, to such sentiments, suggesting that neither man, because they’re black, can be patriots — despite their long service to the nation. And again, that’s the real point: African-Americans can’t be patriots. Because they hate America. As with Frederick Douglass, the Fourth of July means something different for Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright than it does for Hillary Clinton and John McCain; Independence Day must always be a day of rage rather than celebration for black people. The former point may be true; just as Christmas means different things for Jews and Protestants. But the point that follows, that black people, because of the legacy of slavery, can’t be patriots, is nonsense, especially when one realizes that Douglass loved America, that his speech was a classic example of prophecy coupled with dissent: designed to point out pathologies in the body politic so the nation could begin healing itself. But this perspective was anathema for white sumpremacists in the 1850s, who saw Frederick Douglass only as a threat.

The same is true today. Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are being cast as a threat to the social order, to the status quo, to the nation — because of their race. Which is why Obama has been working so hard to distance himself from Wright. Were Obama to be branded a Chomskyite, I think he could beat that rap. But if his critics successfully label him a neo-Douglassian, Obama can no more slip that noose than change the color of his skin. That Ezra doesn’t see this, that he doesn’t see that the Wright story first originated and now maintains its momentum because of racial anxiety, genuinely surprises me, particularly given the way that racism is shaping the primary. We don’t have to rely on thought experiments for evidence of this; we have both anecdata (via TPM) and actual data, in both cases indicating that Negrophobia is driving the electorate away from Obama. Come to think of it, maybe I was right in the first place: maybe Ezra was a bit off his game yesterday. In which case: pfffft.



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