The current furor over Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright reminds me of another seldom discussed contradiction within the Democratic party: The self-described party of inclusion is obsessed with the divisive issue of race. As a conservative I am not surprised by this, because I have long accepted that the Left is deeply attracted to the narrative of victimization and oppression at the hands of "the man" -- whether that be white males, corporations, the "government" or others wielding power in our society. I've written numerous times about the "cult of victimization" that I see among liberals that essentially takes two forms: those who feel victimized by power and those who are part of the power class but feel guilty about it. Thus you see strange bedfellows on the Left -- poor blacks, illegal immigrants, union workers, media elite and Hollywood stars all in a messy millieu of fear, guilt, anxiety and prodigious amounts of anger. In this context, the reaction to Jeremiah Wright and the Obama speech that sought to explain it is both understandable and disturbing. Obama's ability to deliver a moving speech on the subject of race was an impressive act for a candidate who has excelled at being the "non-racial candidate". His speech was rich with his personal history and attempted to put Wright's sermons in a broader context. To his credit, he did go a long way toward repudiating Wright and the comments that have gotten endless play on YouTube:
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
Those "statements", you'll recall, relate a whole host of incendiary comments about how America deserved the attacks on 9/11, how whites created the AIDS virus as a weapon against the black community -- and on and on and on.
Obama is careful, however, to not repudiate Wright "the man", even if separating the man and the preacher is exceedingly hard to do:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
Thus, for Obama, Wright's comments and their acceptance in the black community are rooted in fear -- the same kind of fear of black men his white grandmother had expressed to him in the past. This gives Wright's hateful, angry speech a legitimacy that it doesn't deserve -- as if they are on par with the words of his beloved grandmother. It's disturbing double speak: Obama repudiates the views of Wright without actually repudiating the base sentiment, or the man who delivered them. He then goes on to cite a litany of tired arguments about Jim Crow laws and historical race discrimination -- all of which he uses to explain why the black community is so angry and distrustful for white America.
Obviously, much of what Obama says is true: there has been a history of slavery and black oppression in America. That is undeniable. The important question is: Does it really still exist to the level that blacks apparently believe it does? Not only is Jim Crow long dead, but so is "Separate but Equal" and other legal and structural barriers to equality. Those barriers were put permanently to rest by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark legislation that incidentally was sponsored by white Democrats and Republicans in the Congress, and was signed by a white southern president. Through Affirmative Action and other preferences, blacks have actually by law been given real systemic advantages over whites for over 40 years. In my view, there is a deep contradiction in the words of Jeremiah Wright and his brand of black separation theology and the plain facts that are clear to anyone willing to look honestly at this issue.
My own honest view of race, the black community and the Democratic party includes the following:
-- There is a gulf between the races in America -- but it is as much a creation of the black community and "leaders" such as Jeremiah Wright who are underwritten by the Democratic party, as it is a product of real white-based racism.
-- The vitriol of Jeremiah Wright and other separatists in the black community is rooted in the 1960s -- the anger of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other revolutionaries who lived in an age when real discrimination and racism was both accepted and sponsored by the state. But that was then. Today, the notion that blacks are systematically "kept down" by a "white America" is not consistent with the world we live in -- where a Barack Obama can go to Harvard and be within a hair of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States!
-- The core theology of Wright and other pastors in the black community is consistent with the race-based victimization mantra of the Jesse Jackson's of the world. In this way it is a self-fulfilling dogma that not only fails to empower, but also destroys the desire and ability of blacks in America to take individual responsibility for their lives -- and to join the mainstream community where education, jobs and prosperity are available to them. Why is it so hard to accept that if one black man or woman can rise to become an executive or a lawyer in America today, then that avenue is open to all blacks in America?
-- The broader Democratic party -- and white liberals in particular -- act to reinforce the notion of an ingrained, systemic racism in this country. The net effect of this is to give blacks and the black community a "pass" on both what they say and what they do. Nicholas Kristof, the liberal white columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece after Obama's speech that illustrates this perfectly. For example, on the issue of Wright's remarks, Kristof basically acts to translate Wright's angry words that are clearly hostile to white America:
Many well-meaning Americans perceive Mr. Wright as fundamentally a hate-monger who preaches antagonism toward whites. But those who know his church say that is an unrecognizable caricature: He is a complex figure and sometimes a reckless speaker, but one of his central messages is not anti-white hostility but black self-reliance.
So, for Kristof, the way to black self-reliance is through race-bashing white America. He goes on:
Many white Americans seem concerned that Mr. Obama, who seems so reasonable, should enjoy the company of Mr. Wright, who seems so militant, angry and threatening. To whites, for example, it has been shocking to hear Mr. Wright suggest that the AIDS virus was released as a deliberate government plot to kill black people.That may be an absurd view in white circles, but a 1990 survey found that 30 percent of African-Americans believed this was at least plausible. (Just as) many African-Americans even believe that the crack cocaine epidemic was a deliberate conspiracy by the United States government to destroy black neighborhoods.
Thus, Wright's words aren't the problem, nor is the misguided belief among blacks that there is actually truth to what he says. The problem is racism. It is white racism that causes blacks to do crack, to drop out of the free education they are provided, to destroy their neighborhoods and to foster repeat generations of black children in single parent households.
Liberals like Kristof won't dare mention the notion of personal responsibility, nor point out the obvious absurdity that giving Wright a pass on his rhetoric because others in the black community hold the same beliefs is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Such honesty would conflict with their own deep-seated sense of "white guilt" over the predicament that blacks are in. Apologize and justify -- that's the liberal solution to the race issue in America today.
The irony, of course, is this: white guilt that apologizes for black racism and that serves to further legitimize the victimization and self-segregation of blacks only serves to destroy their best hope for eliminating racial inequality: real assimilation. That is the message that Democrats and Barack Obama should be giving the black community. His speech on race and his handling of the Wright issue fell far short of that, and proves again that he is not the post-racial candidate he claims himself to be.