Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Taking it to the Heathens

It turns out that a political test for Barack Obama is media discussion of his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ. In these electoral contretemps the fundamental decision is often between dissassociation and defense. George W. Bush at times errs on the side of combativeness, Bill Clinton has been a notorious dissassociater. I can think of two reasons why Obama may want to come out, not necessarily as a fighter, but perhaps as an aggressive horizons-broadener, which seems to be the role he was born to play. First of all, I hope that the lesson gets through here that there is a long and full-throated tradition of attacking American society on the right. Fundamentalist (white) Christian groups feel perfectly entitled to rail against an America they see as too secular and too "multicultural." And that kind of speech is perfectly legitimate, for what it's worth, but don't then claim that African-Americans need to pass some sort of loyalty test from white conservatives. There is a long tradition, after all, of Christian missionaries taking it to the heathen, and that brings me to the second point. The few clips of Jeremiah Wright that the cable news channels have been playing over and over again reveal a man strongly influenced by the civil rights-era thinkers Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. One of Malcolm's aphorisms that has always stuck with me was when he said that racism wasn't a black problem, it was a white problem. The moral authority of the church has provided over many years one of the few venues where black leaders were able to openly criticize the larger society. The black community understands this even if the white community does not. Another potent element here is an insistence that moral responsibilty extends beyond the borders of the country. One of MLK's most memorable lines is from his speech on the Vietnam War, where he questions how we could treat browns differently than whites and blacks. Jesse Jackson worked very hard to get out the message of labor rights and environmental protection abroad, during the formative years of "globalization" in the 80s. When Jeremiah Wright, discussing 911, uses the phrase "the chickens come home to roost," this is in fact quite a self-conscious repetition of Malcolm X's language in the event of JFK's assassination. I don't like the occasionally race-baiting tone of this sort of thing, but I also don't think that this tradition of African-American rhetoric is somehow illegitimate or without substance.
Obama's affiliation with this church was a major investment for him (he moved to Chicago after law school), and one that undoubtedly contributed greatly to his credibility as an organizer and politician there. He has to defend the church, and explain its doctrines, and not just appear to be dissassociating himself from them. This relates to the larger fact that a black candidate has to win the overwhelming majority of the black vote to be elected: that's an essential part of his coalition . That brings me back to this idea that Obama must pass tests that others needn't. The Republicans aren't embarrased to have constituencies. They frankly strategize between the fundamentalists, the corporatists, and the suburban oblivious. Obama has to take care of his base, and the black community is a major part (not all) of his base. He's going to give the big speech on this topic in a couple of minutes. If he makes insinuations about the Clintons, that's dirty but acceptable by hard-ball standards. But he will have to stand up for his church and its congregation. It's not fair to expect that a black candidate is supposed to prove that he's not a black candidate. Like MLK and Malcolm X, a black leader still needs to take it to the heathens.

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