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 positions. His Philadelphia speech enhanced his stature, which only made it all the more disconcerting that in the name of defending his church a black minister committed to social gospel seemed determined to ambush the first potentially successful campaign for president by a black person.
I come from preachers and my family hasn’t much sympathy for hollering in church. Yet they would be offended if a white person made fun of that black tradition of straining in the pulpit. When the Wright scandal first broke, some black commentators were quick to insist on the cathartic purposes of religious services in black culture, and how church is where black people can let go of the week’s frustrations. However, I couldn’t see where the attack on the black church was in the furor over the YouTube clips of Wright’s sermons. Snippets they may have been, looped again and again, but it was still Wright who was claiming that the HIV virus was a US government conspiracy.
Wright’s sermons, which Trinity United Church of Christ has posted on YouTube in fuller versions, make a more sober impression than do the provocative soundbites. To say that the attack on the World Trade Center was a reaction to US foreign policy and an occasion for national self-examination is not an opinion that divides along racial lines. But Wright’s prophecies of biblical retribution for what he sees as a long list of crimes committed by US administrations past and present, and his climactic cry of “No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America!,” called up for many white people the racial nightmare that has been a factor in presidential elections since Nixon’s Southern strategy.
Obama had presented himself as a reconciler of races, able to represent everyone. His patient work was threatened by what the Wright story was being turned into. By damning America, Wright, the son and grandson of preachers, raised the possibility that that black anger was hiding away in Obama’s inner circle, if not in Obama himself. My best friend from junior high school, devoted to Israel, said that because of Wright he was worried about Obama’s possible ties to Louis Farrakhan.
Moreover, how one responds to September 11 is for many whites a test of patriotism—and for blacks, too— but especially among the blue-collar voters that Obama was losing to Clinton. The damage done by Wright ran deep, and still works against Obama, in that the clip of Wright shouting “God damn America” is often shown on TV, and is identified as having been made just after September 11. This clip seems to have had by far the most negative impact. It is hard to exaggerate the lingering effect in America of the September 11 attacks, an effect that seems well summarized in Sheldon Wolin’s recent book Democracy Incorporated:
The mythology created around September 11 was predominantly Christian in its themes. The day was converted into the political equivalent of a holy day of crucifixion, of martyrdom, that fulfilled multiple functions: as the basis of a political theology…as a warning against political apostasy….1
For people who have absorbed such a view of the September 11 attacks, the video of Obama’s pastor calling on God to damn America was bound to be deeply troubling, particularly to the large numbers of white voters who think Obama and Wright have the same views. According to polls, 57 percent of the West Virginians who had heard of Wright thought Obama shared his views; and 56 percent of Americans say it is somewhat likely that Obama “shares some of Wright’s controversial views of the United States.”
What Obama most projects is intellectual honesty, a sense that he has thought things through, or is going to try to. I didn’t doubt his ability to win over the white working class if given the chance after I saw him and Mrs. Obama at a town-hall-style meeting of about forty people held on April 30 on Indianapolis’s south side. In a park named for James Garfield, the assassinated twentieth president, among the dogwood in blossom, Obama talked about the economy and his modest background and that of his wife. They’d got to where they were, he said, because they had had access to good education, and the question was would Americans continue to be able to do the same for their children. Mrs. Obama said that she and her husband were still close to the lives most Americans were living, and that she never felt she had had a choice when it came to deciding whether she should work or not.
The audience, including a decorated black soldier and his wife, had been selected, I heard, because they were working people who perhaps cared more about the price of gas—it had gone up overnight by fifteen cents— than they did about race politics. Obama had been sharply criticized during the Pennsylvania primary because, in a private meeting, he had made some candid remarks about white working-class despair. Among white workers, class resentment of articulate blacks goes back a long way. The charge of elitism sounded like he was being called uppity. James Baldwin once pointed out that whites are sometimes surprised to find that black people have been judging them all this time. And they don’t easily forgive one for daring to feel sorry for them.
Tall, dark-lipped, and handsome, Obama had reassured these voters in Indianapolis, maybe just by his presence and that of his powerfully attractive wife. (They had arrived at the meeting holding hands.) Some tried to tell him what his candidacy meant to them as Americans. He autographed books; he stood with his arms around them as they took photographs. Handpicked and predisposed to approve of him they may have been, but it was moving to see his effect on these white people. And suddenly he was taking great strides across the park, Secret Service agents flowing beside him, to where a small group of well-wishers had gathered in the road.
One young couple who described themselves as active in their church told me afterward that they had been to black church services and were not afraid of anything they’d heard Reverend Wright say, much as they objected to his negativity. What had most impressed them about the town hall meeting was that Obama had made them feel listened to. It was the first time they had put an election sign on their lawn. Someone had asked about Wright during the meeting and Obama admitted that Wright’s statements had been a disappointment, but he said he remained committed nevertheless to a campaign that was not about attacking anyone. Obama nearly pulled off an upset in Indiana (51 percent to 49 percent), in spite of the rural Republicans who may have heeded Rush Limbaugh’s call for “Operation Chaos” (i.e., for causing as much division in the Democratic camps as possible) and crossed over to vote for Clinton. And this was when the Wright scandal was at its hottest.
Bill Clinton could not have won in 1992 without the overwhelming support of blacks, but at the same time his campaign distanced itself from the black community, a strategy designed to win back Reagan Democrats.2 That New Democrat strategy isn’t available to Obama. Instead, he puts an end to the distinction between “the black candidate” and “the candidate who happens to be black.” His gamble with racial identity is that he is asking Reagan Democrats to accept that his acceptance of himself as a black guy, which includes his embrace of the civil rights legacy, is entirely right and proper, because America wouldn’t want as president anyone who didn’t know, and wasn’t proud of, who he was.
Democrats have not won an absolute majority of the white vote since 1964. Surveys have told us that whites find race divisive as an election issue, but for years race always ended up being a crucial factor. Web sites such as ExposeObama.com show that the Wright tapes will be around for the rest of the campaign and the blog of one Republican attorney, AdvanceIn diana.com, has reported an unconfirmed rumor that Karl Rove is holding a tape of Mrs. Obama talking about “whitey.” Though the networks keep showing on television the tape of Wright cursing America, as if they took pleasure in titillating white Americans with the threat of black rage, maybe the Wright controversy has already done much of the damage it was going to do. There are those whites who were never going to vote to put a black family in the West Wing any more than they would go on living on a street that got too integrated. In Philadelphia, Obama expressed the hope that maybe in this election, race wouldn’t become a divisive issue: “Not this time.”