Obama & the Black Church

My parents, old NAACP activists, live in front of CNN, and back in April I happened to be with them in Indianapolis the week before the Indiana primary, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy returned to embarrass Senator Barack Obama’s campaign. To my mother, passionately pro-Obama, nothing justified what she saw as Wright’s weekend of self-promotion: his speech to the Detroit NAACP and his performance at the National Press Club. “He’s clowning for the white folks,” she said.

My father, ferociously pro-Clinton because he doesn’t believe that even a moderate black man can be elected president in such a racist society, said that Obama had been wrong to repudiate his pastor. He should have stood by him in his North Carolina press conference as he had in his Philadelphia speech when he refused to strip Wright of his historical context as a man who “contains within him the contradictions…of the [black] community.” Black people wouldn’t like it, because they always took their pastor’s side. My mother countered that, on the contrary, black congregations were forever dumping their pastors. I wondered how much of this kind of back and forth was going on in black homes across the country. My parents did agree, however, that because of the Wright story the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Indiana’s law requiring voters to have valid photo identification was not being debated enough.

To see Obama in Philadelphia, reasoning with the American public, was to be struck yet again by what a different atmosphere he would bring to the White House. He criticized the views of his former pastor that “offend white and black alike.” Wright had expressed a distorted view of America, one that “sees white racism as endemic,” and that “elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”

Obama’s tone said that because the subject of race had come up in a sensational fashion, he would address it as calmly as possible. In his brief history of discrimination and segregation, he was concrete about the effects of joblessness and the shame of not being able to provide for one’s family. He also reminded the country of his white grandparents who brought him up and he spoke sympathetically of white Americans, especially the descendants of immigrants, who don’t feel “particularly privileged by their race,” and therefore resent legislation and policies deemed necessary “because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.”

He created a moment, stopping the campaign to have a conversation about race. Moreover, his speech put a halt to the series of campaign incidents— such as his failure to wear an American flag on his lapel—that seemed to call his patriotism into question. He expressed what is probably among blacks a commonly held point of view about race in America. That what he said seemed so amazing suggests how long it has been since such an interpretation of race commanded our full attention. We are much more used to hectoring criticism of such liberal…

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