Rattling The Cage: If Obama were white

No white candidate has ever been penalized for racism.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Assuming that Barack Obama will be the Democrats' nominee for president, Rev. Jeremiah Wright is going to be dogging him all the way through Election Day November 4. Wright's You Tubed vilifications of America and rancor against white people are, at least for now, the one arrow aimed at Obama's heart, the one potentially lethal doubt about the Illinois senator that will stay on the minds of America's undecideds. For many Jews and evangelical Christians, there's also Wright's characterization of Israel as a practitioner of "state terrorism." This stuff is not going to go away. For hardcore conservatives and liberals, Wright doesn't matter; these people are going to vote either for John McCain or Obama no matter what that scary old demagogue said in that church. But the election is going to be fought over the vast middle - the independents, the liberal wing of the GOP and the conservative wing of the Democrats - and a lot of these people may end up rejecting Obama and voting for McCain because of Jeremiah Wright. And although I'm supporting McCain because of his stand on Iraq, I think it would be a racial injustice, it would be holding a black presidential candidate to a standard of "cleanliness" that no white presidential candidate has ever been held to, for people to reject Obama simply, or even mainly, because of his long, close connection to Wright. It's like this: If you believe Obama's true political and racial attitudes are an echo of Wright's, then you're not going to vote for Obama (unless, of course, your attitudes are an echo of Wright's). But it doesn't seem that any open-minded, reasonable person believes this about Obama. I'm sure the Republicans have been Googling around the clock trying to find some wild, Black Panther-style statement that Obama made somewhere, sometime. But they haven't found one. Not a word. Nobody who ever knew Obama has come forward with some radical, militant remark they heard him make - and among those who knew him at Harvard Law School were students who went on to become major Republican Party operatives. This guy's been "vetted," to use Hillary Clinton's word, and he's clean as a whistle. BUT THE argument made by many open-minded, reasonable people is that while Obama clearly has a completely different ideology from Wright's, it says something very bad about him that he stuck with this pastor for 20 years, that he attended his church, listened to his sermons, made him a "spiritual adviser" to his campaign, and allowed himself and his family to remain under his influence. It says something very troubling about Obama's judgment, and thus about his suitability to be president, goes this argument. But then you have to ask yourself: Why did Obama make that judgment? Why did he stick with Wright and Trinity Baptist Church for 20 years, even when he knew that the pastor was way off in loony left field? If we agree that it's not because Obama identified with Wright's politics, then what was it? One common speculation is that Obama, whose father abandoned the family, saw Wright as a father figure, and since Wright had brought him to Christianity, married him and his wife and baptized their children, Obama psychologically couldn't break away from him. The other popular explanation is that Obama, a racially-mixed politician from Harvard with a largely black, working-class Illinois constituency, was vulnerable to charges that he "wasn't black enough," so joining a big, grassroots black church with a popular minister was a smart move, while leaving the church under fire from white people would have been political suicide. Either way, whether you think Obama aligned himself with Wright for psychological reasons or cynical ones, or if you think it was a combination of the two, or if you think he had any other reason except affinity for Wright's politics - is this a reason to write him off? No, it's not. Even if you attribute the cynical motive to Obama, this is a reason to recognize him as a politician, not a savior, but it's not a reason to dismiss him. I don't like it that McCain has kissed up to some of America's worst, most bigoted, most rabidly right-wing evangelical leaders, but I forgive him. If I thought McCain identified with the political and social ideas of Pat Robertson, John Hagee and the late Jerry Falwell, I couldn't vote for him, but I understand that he's a politician, not a savior, so I can tolerate it - just as I could tolerate Obama's connection with Wright if I was otherwise inclined to vote for him. STILL, THE point is made against Obama that if a white presidential candidate had been so close for so long to a racist white preacher, that white candidate would have been run out of the campaign in an instant, no explanations accepted. But this is a false equation. Jeremiah Wright makes me extremely uncomfortable. He believes in some of the worst crackpot, anti-American conspiracy theories, his attitude toward whites seems tainted by black paranoia, his views of Israel are harsh and distorted, and from what I've seen on YouTube - from watching his sermons at length, not just sound bites - he generally comes off as hostile and intolerant. I'd say he's a pretty bad egg. Still, he should not be equated with a white racist preacher. Wright may be bad news, but I wouldn't call him evil; a disseminator of white racism is evil. You can't equate black resentment of whites with white contempt for blacks. You can't equate the residual antagonism of history's victims with the residual cruelty of history's victimizers. If a Jew, even a rabbi in a synagogue, speaks bitterly about "the goyim," it's not the same as a gentile, let's say a preacher in church, speaking bitterly about "the Jews," is it? On this subject, I'll add that while Wright is clearly anti-Israel, there's no evidence at all that he's a Jew-hater, an anti-Semite. On this score, too, I don't like him, but I can't call him evil, it's not beyond the pale for a politician to belong to his church - no more than it would be for a politician to belong to a synagogue whose rabbi opposed the Palestinians' right to statehood. But what really bothers me about the idea that Obama could actually lose the election because of Jeremiah Wright is that no white candidate has ever been penalized for racism; in fact, racism has helped many a white man get to the White House. "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say nigger - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff." That was Lee Atwater, Karl Rove's deceased mentor, explaining the GOP's "southern strategy" in a 1981 interview. "All that stuff" helped Richard Nixon get elected in 1968 and 1972, and it helped Ronald Reagan get elected in 1980 and 1984. That Willie Horton stuff helped George H.W. Bush get elected in 1992. That lying stuff about McCain fathering a black child helped George W. Bush get the Republican nomination in 2000. Congressman Dick Cheney's votes in the 1980s in support of South Africa's apartheid regime didn't help elect Bush-Cheney in 2000 and 2004, but it didn't hurt, either. Now, for the first time in American history, a candidate for president may be defeated because of the taint of racism - and it's a black candidate. Something tells me these Jeremiah Wright YouTubes are just the 2008 version of "all that stuff."