Barack Obama’s race speech didn’t adequately answer the key question of his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but his comments were revelatory in important ways.
What Obama highlighted, if indirectly, is the dormant disconnect between much of black and white America. And what he revealed, if accidentally, is that he has contributed to that disconnect as a passive participant.
We need to talk, Obama says. So let’s talk.
What has become clear in the several days since Obama’s speech in Philadelphia is that blacks and whites see things differently — in some cases, as different as black and white.
To the average white American, especially one who doesn’t subscribe to the fire-and-brimstone school of religious expression, Wright is an unfamiliar character. He may be a Christian but his orientation is African and he speaks the language of white conspiracy.
What was jolting for many whites wasn’t that Wright has a following — to each his own — but that Obama, a man who intends to lead an entire country, found a home among the pews of Wright’s church. That Obama eventually distanced himself from some of Wright’s rhetoric only raises the second question: What took so long?
How can anyone sit in a church where the minister says, for instance, that the U.S. government invented the AIDS virus to kill blacks? Obama may have been too young or too naive at some point along his 20-year relationship with Wright, but eventually, shouldn’t the man who became an Illinois state senator and then a U.S. senator and then a presidential contender have spoken up before he was forced to?
Those are reasonable questions, but they are mostly white questions. Blacks have others. Obama was correct when he said that Wright, though sometimes wrong, spoke to deep wounds and a history most whites don’t like to examine too closely.
The historical experience of blacks and whites in this country couldn’t be more different. Whites know it intellectually, but blacks feel it viscerally. No matter how many books we read or movies we watch, whites can never quite grasp what it is to be black or to be descended from people who were denied their humanity and enslaved by whites with the benign approval of the state.
But we didn’t do it, we protest. Our children aren’t guilty. When is enough enough? Why must preachers such as Wright insist on fanning those flames?
White Americans want to put race behind them, to move on. And many had hoped Obama was the man to make that happen. The big surprise was learning that he belongs to a church where the past is loudly present. Obama gave himself away when, in his speech, he paraphrased William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
Black history, meanwhile, makes it possible for many to accept the theory advanced by Wright that white men invented the AIDS virus to destroy black populations. After all, the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study, in which about 400 black men with syphilis were left untreated and uninformed as part of an experiment, was conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Given that history, the AIDS theory doesn’t require much of a leap for many in the black community. The AIDS virus has hit African Americans harder than any other group. For blacks in the United States, HIV/AIDS is a leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Even though blacks account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 49 percent of those who get HIV and AIDS. Whites account for 31 percent.
A white person might view these statistics on the CDC website and understand that blacks suffer more in part because of barriers such as poverty, sexually transmitted disease, and cultural stigmas that put blacks at higher risk. Blacks — especially those under the spell of Wrighteousness — might view the same information and at least wonder if something else is going on.
So, yes, there is work to be done. Between a history of distrust born of painful experience — and people like Wright who keep that history alive and well-stoked — racial harmony will require more than hope. It will also require that people like Obama speak up and object to harmful rhetoric, sooner rather than later, even if it hurts the ones he loves.
There’s a reason why it’s lonely at the top.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group