Old sermons by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, have caused a storm of outrage to sweep through the presidential campaign in the United States. It is really a storm of hypocrisy. The outrage should be saved for the conditions faced by African Americans, conditions that remain appalling long after the end of slavery and Jim Crow.
In one of the sermons, Wright says: “The government gives them [African Americans] 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. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.” An ABC news reporter asked parishioners whether they thought Wright’s views were extreme. One said: “He spoke the truth, he continues to speak the truth, and people can label that as radical, but I say it’s insightful.” Another said, “No, I wouldn’t call it radical, I’d call it being Black in America.”
The United States Census tells us something about being Black in America. Black men are twice as likely as Whites and Hispanics not to finish high school, and Whites and Hispanics are twice as likely as Black men to graduate from university with a Bachelor’s degree or more. Unemployment for Black men is in double digits, twice that of Black and Hispanic men. For Black women, unemployment rates are more than twice that of White women. The poverty rate for Blacks in 2001 was 23 percent, compared to 8 percent for non-Hispanic Whites. Put this figure another way – one poor person in four in 2001 was Black, far in excess of their share of the population.
The American prison system tells us something about being Black in America. Black men in America are more than six times as likely as White men to end up in prison. For White men in 2006, 487 out of every 100,000 were in jail. For Black men the figure was an appalling 3,042 per 100,000. For young Black men, the figures go from appalling to barbaric. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time in prison. Put this in the terms used earlier – for every 100,000 young black men in America, eleven thousand, one hundred and eleven are in prison. These numbers only hint at the terrible reality faced by these young people. American prisons are cauldrons of rape. In the first ever survey of sexual abuse in the prison system, the group Stop Prisoner Rape reported that in 2007 alone, approximately 60,500 inmates were “subjected to sexual abuse.” “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
These are the facts. But these facts notwithstanding, Wright’s comments have put Obama on the defensive. “I completely reject” them Obama told a town-hall meeting at a high school in Plainfield Indiana, March 15. Obama is up against the racism in American society from a different front. The more his candidacy has emerged as a credible one, the more the campaign inside the Democratic Party has polarized on racial lines. Obama’s campaign has captured the hope of millions. But to get elected, he needs to speak to a section of the electorate that does not want to hear about America’s systemic racism – and that means distancing himself from Wright.
According to John Ibbitson, in the Globe and Mail, “in early primaries, Mr. Obama often took a majority of the White vote, or at least of White male voters; in Mississippi’s primary last week, Mr. Obama took 92 per cent of the Black vote but only 26 per cent of the White vote.” These kinds of statistics will figure prominently in the selection of the Democratic standard bearer.
Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton can win enough delegates through the remaining primaries and caucuses, to secure the candidacy. Each will need to win over the non-elected delegates to the convention, the several hundred “super delegates” — party elders and full-timers – who will hold the balance of power. There is a real possibility that these super delegates will give the candidacy to Clinton, even if Obama has won more states, more delegates and more popular vote than her. There will be many of those super delegates open to an argument that a Black candidate cannot win the votes of substantial numbers of white American voters.
Obama’s campaign is in a double prison. First he is up against the deep racism of a society founded on slavery and only recently emerging from apartheid-like conditions in the American South, a society then that is deeply racist. Second, he is trapped inside a Democratic Party whose origins and history are dripping with that same racism. It was the Democratic Party “Dixiecrats” who for generations tried to preserve White privilege in post Civil War United States, the Democratic Party which has taken turns with the Republicans waging racist wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.
But even if the campaign of one man inside an old, establishment party will not transform this grim reality, we need to angrily reject the indignant howls of those “offended” by the comments of Obama’s pastor. Let them learn from Wright to direct their rage against the prison system, the education system, and the economic system, which remain to this day stained top to bottom with racism.
© 2008 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.
 Cited in Daniel Nasaw, “Controversial comments made by Rev Jeremiah Wright,” guardian.co.uk, March 18, 2008
 ABC News, “Obama’s Preacher: The Wright Message?” accessible on Youtube, www.youtube.com
 U.S. Census Bureau, “The Black Population in the United States: March 2002,” April 2003, www.census.gov
 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prison Statistics: Summary findings,” www.ojp.usdoj.gov
 Editorial, “Prison Nation,” New York Times, March 10, 2008, www.nytimes.com
 Stop Prisoner Rape, “First Ever National Survey of Prisoners Shows Widespread Sexual Abuse in Detention,” press release, December 16, 2007, www.spr.org
 Tom Raum, “Obama Decries Racial Rhetoric,” Associated Press, March 16, 2008
 John Ibbitson, “Racial resentments threaten to split Democrats,” The Globe and Mail, March 18, 2008, p. A15
Good article on defending the Chicago preacher and exposing the Dems.
But I disagree with Ibbitson's argument. He is using the ruling class line that racism comes from white workers, and that politicians can't talk about equality and justice if they want to appeal to this supposedly monolithic and backwards section of the population. Yes, there are historic divisions along racial lines, but they come from the top of society, not the bottom.
Clinton did not even bother going to certain southern states because she was at a "demographic" disadvantage, i.e. there were black people there. This is an interesting indicator showing how the South was transformed by the civil rights movement, so that Obama swept those states. But like Malcolm X argued, "the American South starts at the Canadian border".
Obama denounced his preacher not to appease backwards white workers, but to give a wink and nod to the American establishment that he won't accept any fundamental criticisms of the State. This is the latest in his (and the Dems) recurring strategy of shoring up support of the majority by talking left, then moving progressively to the right to rule. So when Obama said that he'd attack al Qaeda in Iraq, it wasn't to appeal to pro-war white workers, but his fellow ruling class. His calls for unity are like the Iraq Study Group, trying to rehabilitate US imperialism to the backlash of protest at home and abroad.
That a former civil rights lawyer would denounce basic facts about Black America shows the extent to which the Democratic party is loyal to the ruling class. And this is the constant contradiction of the Democrats, which cost them the election the last time, of trying to appeal to the majority of their electoral base while staying loyal to their corporate funding base. So Kerry posed as anti-war protester and then said Bush should get "tough on Fallujah". Now Obama and Clinton are speaking out against the war and NAFTA, while secretely (or not so secretely in the case of Obama's conversation with the Canadian official) telling their friends their true intentions. This contradiction leads to disillusionment which costs them the election, and I'm sure many people will be turned off by Obama's attack on his longtime friend and preacher.
There are some topics which are too dangerous to even pay lip service to, like supporting the anti-war soldiers, denouncing islamophobia (like the "allegation" that Obama is muslim), or talking directly about racism. Edwards spoke out against war at Martin Luther Kings' church, but he did not dare quote King's assertion that the greatest threat to peace was his own government; the media shed crocadile tears over the "tragedy" of Katrina, but were quick to jump on Kanye West for stating plainly what was so obvious, the Bush doesn't care about black people.
All this to say that yes, the preacher is right and the Dems are wrong, but Obama is not appealing to racist white workers as Ibbitson claims, but to a racist pro-war establishment he's seeking to lead. That's why the US left needs to break from the Dems and organize independently, so they can provide a consistent mobilization against racism and war, which so many Americans–black and white alike–are eager to follow.
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