Probably the most remarkable aspect of the recent feeding frenzy about Barack Obama’s so-called "pastor problem" — besides the agility and smarts that Obama has displayed in handling it — is not as much what it reveals about the state of race in America as what it reveals about the state of the American media.
The Washington Post’s report on Obama’s speech observed that this was a controversy that "threatens to engulf his presidential candidacy." Yet as far as anyone can tell, it was having only a marginal effect on the polls in the race before it blew up on the networks, and it was not generated by either of Obama’s political opponents, or by any particular interest groups.
No, this is a controversy cooked up almost entirely within the media realm. Once they sank their fangs into it, the whole zombielike corps of pundits, cable talking heads, and radio talk-show hosts couldn’t let go of it. And equally remarkable was the bias that was on display in discussing it: News anchors and talking heads flatly referred to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s videotaped remarks as "anti-American," "hate-filled," "vicious," "offensive," and so on and on.
It’s telling that none of them also observed that, for the most part, Wright’s remarks (aside from his conspiracist comments about AIDS, which were indeed inexcusable, but which received little or no play before Obama’s speech) were factually accurate, and deeply reflective of a reality that most African Americans live with — and which most white Americans do their best to ignore, deny, and forget. The remarks that were broadcast all over YouTube and replayed endlessly on the cable talk shows were, no doubt, were impolitic, but they were also largely true.
Hacktackular Howie Kurtz, the Post’s "media critic," in his column today — while notably failing to critique the media for its performance — essentially admitted that this was a media-driven frenzy:
[I]t wasn’t until last week, when Fox News and ABC News bought DVDs of Wright’s sermons from the church, that the simmering controversy reached full boil. The recordings have long been sold by the church, but journalists did not seek them until now.
Kurtz’s description also encapsulates the blinkered bias that was at play in not just the discussion leading up to Obama’s speech, but in the general response to it:
To their credit, the network newscasts ran four or five sound bites to evoke Obama’s broader argument that while the anger of older blacks like Wright, 66, is understandable, the country needs to move beyond the racial wounds of the past. But Obama, 46, is trying to win the Democratic nomination, so the anchors kept returning to one core question.
"Is it enough to reassure white voters?" ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked.
"Does it make too many white voters uncomfortable?" asked CBS’s Katie Couric.
Their entire preoccupation, indeed, was with how Wright’s remarks might discomfit whites — while never examining the deeper questions of whether white complacence about race might be something worth challenging, as well as their own roles in failing to make that challenge.
So let’s examine the remarks by Wright that whipped up this frenzy. The controversy largely centered around these quotes:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
In addition to damning America, he told his congregation on the Sunday after Sept. 11, 2001 that the United States had brought on al Qaeda’s attacks because of its own terrorism.
"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye," Rev. Wright said in a sermon on Sept. 16, 2001.
"We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost," he told his congregation.
And there was more outrage over these quotes:
In one sermon in October 2005, Rev. Wright addressed the racial elements at play in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"The winds of Katrina blew the cover off America. The hurricane exposed the hypocrisy," Rev. Wright said, "protecting white folks’ property took priority over saving black folks’ lives." He continued, "This storm called Katrina says far more about a racist government than it does about the wrath of God."
In April 2003, Rev. Wright told his congregation that "the United States government has failed the vast majority of our citizens of African descent."
"For every one Oprah, a billionaire, you’ve got five million blacks who are out of work," he said. "For every one Colin Powell, a millionaire, you’ve got 10 million blacks who cannot read. For every one Condoskeeza [sic] Rice, you’ve got one million in prison. For every one Tiger Woods, who needs to get beat, at the Masters, with his cap-blazing hips, playing on a course that discriminates against women. For every one Tiger Woods, we got 10,000 black kids who will never see a golf course."
What Wright is talking about here, of course, is the long and ugly history of white prejudice against African Americans, a history that continues to this day.
Regardless how much Obama may concede that Wright’s language was "anti-American" or "hateful," the reality is they can only be construed as such if one believes that any criticism of the USA, and of prejudiced white Americans particularly, is unpatriotic or vicious. It’s akin to the long-running right-wing notion that America is like a beloved mommy, and any criticism of her whatsoever means that you "hate America."
Wright may indeed have been short-sighted in failing to acknowledge that there has been progress made, but the reality is that the progress has not only fallen far short of where we need to be, but white complacence over that progress is itself a significant roadblock for creating a real bridge to cross the nation’s racial divide.
The racism he’s talking about is the lazy, blinkered notion that somehow whites have already overcome racism — that they are not responsible for the years of institutional racism, embodied in Jimi Crow, segregation, and the "sundown towns" phenomenon that created the continuing residential and professional segregation that enables young white people to form the networks and connections that are the foundations of economic and social success while leaving young blacks, Latinos, and other minorities out in the cold.
Obama, to his credit, attempted to tackle this in his speech:
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
Obama is hardly the first major political figure to address this. Back in 1995, President Clinton said something remarkably similar:
The rift we see before us that is tearing at the heart of America exists in spite of the remarkable progress black Americans have made in the last generation, since Martin Luther King swept America up in his dream, and President Johnson spoke so powerfully for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy in demanding that Congress guarantee full voting rights to blacks. The rift between blacks and whites exists still in a very special way in America, in spite of the fact that we have become much more racially and ethnically diverse, and that Hispanic Americans — themselves no strangers to discrimination — are now almost 10 percent of our national population.
The reasons for this divide are many. Some are rooted in the awful history and stubborn persistence of racism. Some are rooted in the different ways we experience the threats of modern life to personal security, family values, and strong communities. Some are rooted in the fact that we still haven’t learned to talk frankly, to listen carefully, and to work together across racial lines.
… The two worlds we see now each contain both truth and distortion. Both black and white Americans must face this, for honesty is the only gateway to the many acts of reconciliation that will unite our worlds at last into one America.
White America must understand and acknowledge the roots of black pain. It began with unequal treatment first in law and later in fact. African Americans indeed have lived too long with a justice system that in too many cases has been and continues to be less than just. (Applause.) The record of abuses extends from lynchings and trumped up charges to false arrests and police brutality. The tragedies of Emmett Till and Rodney King are bloody markers on the very same road.
Still today too many of our police officers play by the rules of the bad old days. It is beyond wrong when law-abiding black parents have to tell their law-abiding children to fear the police whose salaries are paid by their own taxes.
And blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong when African American men are many times more likely to be victims of homicide than any other group in this country; when there are more African American men in our corrections system than in our colleges; when almost one in three African American men in their 20s are either in jail, on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system — nearly one in three. And that is a disproportionate percentage in comparison to the percentage of blacks who use drugs in our society. Now, I would like every white person here and in America to take a moment to think how he or she would feel if one in three white men were in similar circumstances.
And there is still unacceptable economic disparity between blacks and whites. It is so fashionable to talk today about African Americans as if they have been some sort of protected class. Many whites think blacks are getting more than their fair share in terms of jobs and promotions. That is not true. That is not true.
The truth is that African Americans still make on average about 60 percent of what white people do; that more than half of African American children live in poverty. And at the very time our young Americans need access to college more than ever before, black college enrollment is dropping in America.
These are uncomfortable truths, of course, but they are also truths. And the media have as much a role in the failure of white Americans to honestly and forthrightly confront them.
The reason we haven’t done so is that we whites have done our damnedest to ignore them. We have effectively wiped the memory of sundown towns from our memories, making us almost purposefully ignorant of them and their surrounding history of ugly violence and vicious bigotry.
Indeed, as we have seen throughout the Obama controversy, the media have been consistent in encouraging white Americans to forget them. Meanwhile, the black people who have to live with these realities cannot.