In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rev. Wright, Take Two: Maybe What Wright Needs is Some Empathy

Wright's interview with Bill Moyers, which I wrote about in my last post, was followed by a speech and in-depth question and answer session by Wright at the National Press Club yesterday. As I wrote in that last post of mine, Wright’s points in the Moyers interview seemed to be valid; Moyers also provided lengthy clips of Wright's sermons, offering a more complex view of some of his highly criticized comments. At the National Press Club however, mainly in the Q & A period, he talked a good deal more about the political side of things. I’ve been trying to sort through some of the videos of it all to make some sense of it, and while I may write more later, I have some more immediate thoughts here.

At first, after watching Wright's Q & A session and Obama's response (both of which I'll include video of below), I was a bit confused. Wright said a number of things that were slight digs against Obama, such as comments about how he (Obama) did not hear the hope in Wright's speeches, and did not go to church with great frequency. But the comment with the most potential for political damage was, appropriately, political in nature. Wright had mentioned on Moyers' show Friday night that, in distancing himself from Wright, Obama was "doing what politicians do," but left it at that. At the National Press Club however, he expressly said that Obama was doing what he had to do "to get elected."

That was, for me, plausible. As anyone whose candidate comes in the line of fire wants to think, my first reaction was that Wright's comments simply weren't true. But of course, thinking that doesn't make it so. So I asked myself whether the reasons Obama provided for distancing himself from Wright seemed valid to me, or not. My sense of the situation crystallized a bit when I looked back at part of the speech Obama gave when he first fully addressed the issue of Rev. Wright, along with the issue of race, in Pennsylvania last month.

Within that speech, Obama describes one of the key reasons he decided to distance himself from Wright:

"[T]he remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's efforts to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they professed a profoundly distorted view of this country. A view that sees white racism as endemic, 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 primarily rooted in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam. As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive. Divisive at a time when we need unity..." (These comments start around the seventh minute in this video.)

But to return to our question about Wright's claim, is Obama just saying what's necessary to be elected? To claim that implies that Obama is lying, or at least intentionally misleading. Certainly what Obama has said about Wright has helped assuage the worries of many potential supporters, but does that mean he was lying, or being misleading?

Well, I haven’t heard the comments Wright made concerning Israel, but in terms of his thoughts on white racism, I do indeed think that some of those thoughts gave the impression that white racism is "endemic," as Obama put it. I looked up a short clip on a sermon of Wright's where he talks some about Hillary Clinton, along with whites in general. In watching it, I did get the sense that he was painting whites in a pessimistic, fatalistic fashion. He makes a number of comments about African Americans that are undoubtedly true, noting that whites do not know what it’s like for a taxi to pass them by because of their color, or to be pulled over by the police because of the way they look.

These points are ones that I think Obama was making in similar fashions in his speech, but the difference is that Obama clearly attempted to see things from both the black and white perspective. As I mentioned in my first post on Obama’s “race speech,” he accurately speaks about the black and the white perspective on race, without demonizing either. The above sermon of Wright’s that I watched, available here, does not attempt to see things from both sides, in my view, and therefore comes across as demonizing in ways. I don’t think that means Wright hates whites, or anything that extreme, I think it simply means that he, in some ways, was not attempting to see things from both sides; Obama even pointed this out during his Pennsylvania speech, noting that he never saw Wright treat a white person unkindly, etc.

To wrap my thoughts up here, I would say that the whole issue here may come down to empathy. Both Obama and Wright are looking at problems, not of race, but of races--that is, problems that involve both blacks and whites. In order to do so fairly and progressively, both sides need to be considered. Do not hear me wrong though, these problems began, and to the extent that they still exist, have in many ways been perpetuated, at the hands of whites. But of course many whites do not accept these problems, passionately wanting, along with blacks and others, to see things change. It seems Obama is looking hopefully (to use "his" word) at this reality, acknowledging the problems at hands, and saying, “let’s move onto solutions.” Wright, on the other hand, in some ways at least, appears to be focusing more on the problems. There may be more to this puzzle, but those are some initial thoughts. The key videos from Wright yesterday, and Obama today, are below.

Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 1 (again, he gave a speech that preceded the Q&A session, but from what I saw, he talked politics for the most part afterwards in response to questions):

Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 2:

Wright at the National Press Club for Q&A, part 3:

Obama's response to Wright's National Press Club comments:

Above photo credit: Chip Somodevilla for Getty images, all rights reserved.


Josh said...


i think that Wright is somewhat correct about Obama. b/c Obama is being judged and understood by largely white categories of "truth," "goodness," "justice," or what the "appropriate" means of fighting injustice and racism is. white people are much more comfortable with dr. martin luther king jr. because he spoke in categories that were more consistent with white theological categories and people...Obama, if he wants to win will have to somehow either: a)learn how to explain black liberation theology to a government, media, and nation whose existence relies heavily upon generalizations, stereotypes, and racism in a way that unites and helps people to see systemic problems, not just individual ones; or b) will have to distance himself from Wright somewhat b/c in the sound byte driven culture of our government and media, that type of cultural discussion and engagement is for the most part non-existent, thus Obama must create some distance in hopes of further conversations and discussions and the hope that in being elected he will be able to make greater change than if he linked himself with a largely misunderstood figure (Wright).

I think the problem people have with Wright is that they don't want to remember and keep in their mind the perspectives and stories that inform the founding, preservation, and continuation of our country (for black liberation theology also recognizes others such as Native Peoples who have also been oppressed). Wright correctly asserts that we'd be fools to think that the historical perspectives of racism and acts in history do not inform the systemic structures of the political, economic, and social structures of today's society.

i think Wright is correct that Obama is distancing himself...whether this is good or bad in the long run is a question that Wright is saying is a political move/question for Obama, and one that Wright seems to imply involves some compromise on Obama's behalf.

to make a long story short, while i also find it difficult to hear broad brush strokes painting the white race in a certain fashion, we'd be foolish not to listen first, and speak second or even speak later, after hearing how those who are/have been oppressed would like for us (us as white people) to engage in reconciliation. that is to say, Brendan, my parents went to segregated schools in northern virginia. my parents. not some distant past, but within the last 30-40 years. Virginia is one of the worst states, being a state which had some of the worst massive resistance to integration, and lest we not forget that it has only been 40 years since the death of Dr. King.

while i agree, it is hard to be painted with broad brush strokes of pessimism, it is not hard to see Wright's points and how he thinks Obama has compromised to some degree. Remember the mantra after the Holocaust that was adopted by many people in the U.S. after 9/11: "We will never forget." Well, i think that people have to a large degree forgotten the racist roots of the U.S. and have had a good dose of memory loss in terms of recognizing the racist and systemic structures of oppression that continue to exist and oppress today.

My own view is that this sucks. It really sucks that Obama would have to distance himself from Wright, or anyone that he might agree or disagree with on some levels because they speak of some harsh realities. but this is a prime example of how i think that the government, while capable of doing some good, ultimately is not the hope of the world today.

i also think that Wright's words should be difficult and pessimistic for us because they speak of a time and remember the stories of those who have been oppressed, which informs current oppression in a way that means change is necessary for those of us who have benefited from racial injustice.

good stuff B. keep the posts coming.

Brendan said...

Hola Josh,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment back—apologies for the delayed reply here. To respond to your comment in pieces, i would first say that i believe Obama is doing a bit of option 'a' and 'b' from your first paragraph. With option 'a', in his PA speech particularly I think he did speak to the larger public about, if not black theology directly, then racism in general, in a way that undoubtedly (in my view) looked at system-level problems. Then he also did what you mention in option b there, in distancing himself in ways from Wright; but i have to respectfully disagree that he did that at the price that you suggest of actually engaging in a cultural discussion, as again, i think he did that in a historical way in PA.

And to speak to your second paragraph, i think that in that same speech in PA, Obama acknowledged that race clearly has effects on our political, economical and social structures of today—i don’t think anyone could plausibly deny that it does, you know? I think it is fair to say as you did that some are bothered by those that would bring up these historical realities, but i wouldn’t put Obama in that category.

At one point you note, and i agree, that “Well, i think that people have to a large degree forgotten the racist roots of the U.S. and have had a good dose of memory loss in terms of recognizing the racist and systemic structures of oppression that continue to exist and oppress today.” While i think that’s valid, i again would say that Obama spoke to this in his PA speech. I think it was tough to assess that speech because it was not, forgive the unintended pun, a black and white stance—i.e., he did not paint Wright as this evil figure, but he also did not say that Wright was taking the most helpful approach to racial reconciliation.

I would have to disagree with your characterization in your 2nd paragraph from the bottom that Obama distanced himself from Wright because of “harsh realities”; i believe he distanced himself from Wright because, to use that same quote from my post, he “elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” And as i also had mentioned, i believe Wright lacks an empathy that’s really needed in dealing with a sensitive issue like race.

To frame it with a specific example, if i was sitting in Wright’s church listening to the sermon i linked to in my post (on Hillary not knowing what it’s like to be a black person), i think i could have understood what he was getting at; however, i think that many, as is demonstrated in the backlash to videos such as this, need the issue broached in a more understanding fashion—in fact, even though i would understand that sermon if i heard it, i would need it broached in a more understanding fashion to feel we could move some positive direction. A fashion, that is, that spoke to the experience of both races, as Barack did in his speech.

Lastly, i hear your point about a healthy degree of harshness being needed when talking about the harsh history of racism, but i think that can be done in a way that is balanced with an eye towards solutions. Thanks for the reply though Josh, feel free to keep the dialogue going.