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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Getting it right about the Reverend Wright

Far be it for me, a lowly novice blogger, to add anything to the mountains of paper, rivers of ink, and zigabytes of bandwidth (how do we measure bandwidth, anyway?) that have have already piled up, flowed, and widened[?] over the past day or so about Barack Obama's decision to finally jettison the good Reverend Jeremiah Wright to save his faltering campaign--a move that may or not have come in time to save his candidacy from the onslaught of the Clinton campaign's steamroller of pandering, opportunism, dishonesty, and implicit and explicit racism (remember Geraldine Ferraro?) Nevertheless, at least one commentator, Rosa Brooks at the Los Angeles Times, has struck what seems to me to be the right balance in her discussion of the affair today (registration on the Times site probably required.) I am reproducing the entire column below, but in essence Brooks (one of the best commentators in the country for my money) cautions us not to entirely ignore Wright even as we might either condemn, or in my own case, mildly disagree with what he has to say.

As Brooks puts it, "Something about our collective willingness to throw Wright under the nearest subway train strikes me as a bit too easy." The rest of what she has to say is essential reading. Indeed, we need to contrast Obama's newest actions, which were clearly politically necessary in the face of the cheapening of the whole political discourse which the Wright affair has represented, with his speech about race last March, one of the greatest speeches ever given by an American politician as many have pointed out. In just a couple of months, we have seen both the heights and the depths to which American politics can rise and sink.

As Brooks also comments: "In the end, this is probably the true tragedy of the Wright controversy. His self-indulgent antics make it all too easy for the comfortable white majority to write off black anger and mistrust as "crazy" and offensive. Wright says he wants to open our eyes to racist oppression, but he ends up playing into every right-wing caricature. As Obama laments, Wright's comments ironically "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.""

By the way, as an article in the New York Times also points out today, the "white majority" may not be the majority much longer. Not only are members of so-called "minorities" expected to constitute a majority of the U.S. population by 2050, but the percentage of children who belong to minority groups is already tipping that ethnic balance. "Since 2000," the Times reports, "members of racial and ethnic minorities have become a majority of youngsters under 15 in two of the nation's fast-growing states, Florida and Nevada," with several other states fast on the heels of this demographic trend. (The article also discusses, at least briefly, the "aging" of the population, a trend I wrote about in a long Science article a couple of years ago, and which is likely to have dramatic repercussions on the American economy at the least.)

Given all of this, whites have two basic choices: Deal directly with the legacy of racism and discrimination that is still part of the lives of many members of "minority" groups, or circle the wagons and throw those who raise such issues--even as imperfectly as Wright as done--under the bus or the train. Many have seen Obama's very successful candidacy, and his own multi-racial background, as part of a trend towards getting past the old racial divisions. Perhaps, once the "majority" becomes the minority, we will all be able to agree that race doesn't matter--even if some political candidates and demagogues continue to exploit it for their own divisive purposes.

Rev. Wright deserves some attention

Writing him off as twisted does nothing to promote reconciliation.
Rosa Brooks

May 1, 2008

'God damn America," declared the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in 2003. But if that got you worried that Wright was somehow not a true American, this week's events ought to set your mind at rest. With multiple televised performances, Wright has now definitively proved he shares that most quintessential of all American traits: a profound desire to hog the airwaves and proclaim, "It's all about me." Next stop: "American Idol"!

Thanks a lot, Reverend. Barack Obama's campaign must be wishing some chickens would come home to roost right on top of the esteemed reverend's head, while pecking and squawking energetically enough to force Wright off stage for, say, the next six months and four days.

With a campaign message emphasizing unity and hope, the last thing Obama needs is his former pastor running around espousing views most other Americans find offensive and deluded, such as the conviction that the U.S. government started the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or the suggestion that U.S. foreign policy is little different from terrorism.

On Tuesday, Obama finally got fed up with the Jeremiah Wright Show, telling reporters that "Rev. Wright does not speak for me. ... I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks. But ... when I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it."

It's pretty hard to find any Wright defenders these days. Prominent African American commentators? Forget it. Columnist Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Wright's "anger -- indeed, bitterness ... have clearly distorted his views." The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a black minister from Boston, says Wright's on an "ego trip." In the New York Times, Bob Herbert wonders why Wright seems "so insistent on wrecking the campaign of the only African American ever to have had a legitimate shot at the presidency." Not even the Rev. Al Sharpton is defending Wright.

But.

Something about our collective willingness to throw Wright under the nearest subway train strikes me as a bit too easy.

Sure, Wright's a self-centered jerk, but he's unfortunately not the only man in the United States who believes the conspiracy theories he's been spouting.

Take HIV/AIDS. Sadly, Wright's views aren't very far out of the African American mainstream on this. A 2005 Rand Corp. survey found, for instance, that 15% of African Americans consider AIDS "a form of genocide against African Americans." Nearly 27% agreed that "AIDS was produced in a government laboratory," and a whopping 59% felt that "a lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the public."

We can dismiss Wright as bitter and twisted -- but are we prepared to also write off somewhere between a quarter and half of all African Americans? If not, we'd better ask why do so many ordinary people give credence to such wrongheaded theories?

Let's turn to Wright, the man with all the answers. Here's what he said this week: "Based on the Tuskegee experiment and ... what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything."

That's not a completely unreasonable perspective. The Tuskegee experiment was a 40-year U.S. Public Health Service study on the effects of untreated syphilis. Who were the lucky human guinea pigs who got to experience untreated syphilis? Poor and mostly illiterate black sharecroppers in Alabama, that's who. They were falsely informed that they had "bad blood," not syphilis, and denied access to the necessary medicine. The study was terminated only in 1972, when an appalled researcher leaked reports to the media.

That could make you a little paranoid. And it's not a form of paranoia Americans can afford to scoff at. As the 2005 Rand study concludes, African American distrust of the healthcare system -- stemming from "well-documented cases of racial discrimination that led to substandard healthcare for African Americans" -- may be "one factor contributing to the AIDS epidemic."

In other words, if we want to score political points, we can dismiss AIDS conspiracy theories as crazy. But if we're actually interested in ending the AIDS epidemic, we need to understand how rational people can end up believing such theories so we can persuade them to change their minds and their behavior. The same goes for most of Wright's other seemingly far-fetched assertions.

In the end, this is probably the true tragedy of the Wright controversy. His self-indulgent antics make it all too easy for the comfortable white majority to write off black anger and mistrust as "crazy" and offensive. Wright says he wants to open our eyes to racist oppression, but he ends up playing into every right-wing caricature. As Obama laments, Wright's comments ironically "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate."

Let's not make it even worse. Feed Wright to the chickens -- but even if it makes us queasy, we should take his theories about the world seriously enough to refute them, carefully and thoughtfully. If we truly want to move beyond the politics of division, we can't afford to do anything less.

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

The trouble with conspiracy theories of various kinds, is that they wrap themselves around tiny grains of truth. And that is why it is difficult to refute them, to those who choose to believe them. This is just as true of the widespread 9/11 conspiracy theories as it is of Wright's(and some other African Americans as well)belief that AIDS is some kind of plot to get rid of blacks. As the article pointed out, there was the despicable Tuskeegee experiment that came to light a few years ago. And given the history of blacks and whites in the US and elsewhere, it's not surprising that at least some blacks would tend to get awfully paranoid about "majority" intentions. Wright is being asinine here, butanyone<, regardless of the skin they're in, can be asinine. And it's also pretty clear that the Clinton supporters are doing just about everything they can to turn this into a way of pushing Obama out of the race. Which, BTW, is one of the reasons I have not supported Hillary in the past, and find it difficult to summon up any enthusiasm for her now. Still, this hasn't stopped some female supporters(the latest one being Bonnie Erbe in my local paper this morning, from suggesting Obama drop out now. BTW, Bonnie Erbe takes some postions on things that I think are totally wrongheaded, yet she gets printed in various local papers.
Anne G