Saturday, November 01, 2008

Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and those crazy black voters

Several white people have told me they are upset that many American blacks are voting for Senator Obama simply because he’s black.

A few years back I heard a very interesting interview on NPR. It was one of those WWII retrospectives. Someone had just published a book on American black soldiers in the war, so NPR found one of the troopers from the unit in question was quizzing him about his experiences. He told the usual war stories, of battles fought, friends wounded and killed, defeats and triumphs, fascinating stuff for us history buffs. And then he ended with an unusual story. As the war was coming to a close, his unit was sent back to the United States to be disbanded. As they traveled through the U.S. they were given the job of escorting German POWs to a prison camp. They traveled by train and bus, and every day, at noon, they stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Their white officer escorted the Germans into the restaurants to dine, while the black soldiers waited outside: "no blacks allowed."

The soldier recounted how aghast he and his friends were, how shocked and betrayed they felt that they’d risked their lives for America’s freedom, and then learned that totalitarian enemies were more welcome, that American soldiers were considered less desirable than the Wehrmacht, simply because of race.

I was pretty appalled myself.

Consider that in my lifetime there were states where there were special drinking fountains for blacks;* they were forbidden by law from using whites’ drinking fountains. "Blacks are inherently filthy." What other message could one draw from this?

So no wonder that Rev. Wright’s Trinity Church includes in its motto "Unashamedly Black." Sure, some whites get uppity about this, but come on. If a bunch of Hitler worshippers start goose-stepping about while spouting that they are "unashamedly white," yes, a reasonable person will be a bit disconcerted. But if a bunch of black churchoers declare they are "unashamedly black" it’s likely quite different - they are justly rebelling against hundreds of years of lies, persecution, and illegitimate laws that claimed they were inherently inferior. They are "unashamedly black?" There’s no reason at all why one’s skin color, whatever it is, should invoke shame, and I’m glad that Wright’s church recognizes this.

But then there’s Wright’s infamous "God damn America" sermon. Completely beyond the pale, no? Here’s a fuller quote. "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. 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."

When you read what Wright actually said, it’s hard to disagree. After all, it’s the job of a minister to act as our conscience. He’s supposed to be warning us off our sins. And he’s right - America has killed innocent people. It has started unnecessary wars abroad. It has criminalized nonviolent behavior and started unnecessary wars at home - against drugs, against free speech, against individual rights in general. Damn America for favoring Nazis over American soldiers. Damn America for treating black citizens as filthy. And damn America for its "something for nothing" mentality that has brought us the financial crisis. Damn America for its headlong rush into socialism. And most of all, damn America for betraying its highest principles, those of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I get it. America is fallible, it’s not God, and had better get back on track. So 'Repent now, America, before it is too late!' OK... Wright's right.

Barack Obama shouldn’t have abandoned Wright - this was cowardice and political opportunism on Obama’s part which bodes ill for our future. He ought simply to have explained all this instead of feigning shock. But the mere fact that Obama is part black and will be President is a hopeful sign in some ways. At least we’re beyond the "blacks are too filthy to drink from a white man’s fountain" days.

And given all this, who can reasonably condemn blacks for voting for him because he’s black?

*Footnote: I'm actually not so sure about this. I don't know when 'no blacks' drinking fountains were abolished, but this is a rhetorical flourish anyway. They were certainly a bad idea.

Dr. Steele,
I found this article as a welcome relief from much of the anti-partisan voting discussion that has been brought up lately. Coming from Seattle, I am much less familiar with the arguments, like the one you mentioned, in which the black community is disparaged for voting "for one of their own," while the Caucasian population is damned if they do likewise. However, I found such arguments rather prevalent in the more conservative areas I visited (including school). Yet, as you mentioned, why should the black voters feel bad about voting for a president purely on the color of his skin? I don't think it is one of the better reasons to vote for a candidate, but I think over 200 years of blatant discrimination is fair justification to vote along color lines in a few elections.

I can't claim to have any special insight into what black citizens (or anyone else) think, but sometimes trying to imagine things from someone else's perspective makes the world seem more intelligible...and a bit less sinister. It's kind of like employing Adam Smith's "Impartial Spectator."

Thanks for your comment. Comments always welcome.
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