Detroit — The crowd of 10,000 at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday night came ready to Wright a wrong. The spirit of the 1960s’ civil-rights movement hung above Detroit’s Cobo Center as local black leaders took to the dais to celebrate “the hottest brother in America” — Rev. Jeremiah Wright — who had been lynched by the “monolithic electronic media,” (Detroit pastor Martin Bolton) for “speaking truth to power” (Rev. Wendell Anthony, NAACP chair).
As Wright stepped to the podium, the throng stood (albeit slowly after their $150-a-plate dinners) with him — a standing ovation in anticipation of the misunderstood pastor who had famously asked that “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
#ad#What they got instead was a more subtle, if still stubbornly unapologetic, Jeremiah Wright.
They got an ex-minister dressed, not in African robes, but in suit and tie. And they got a speech that often sounded like a Chris Rock comedy routine (absent the expletives, of course) joking about the differences between white and black people — all wrapped in a nice, politically correct plea for Americans “to accept our differences.”
Could it be that Barack Obama had called his good friend and asked that he please shelve the 9/11 speech for now?
“African music is different than European-American music,” said the just-retired preacher from Chicago’s Trinity United Church. “From grammar school we were taught that the dominant beat is on 1 and 3. That is the European-dominant beat. But for African Americans, it’s 2 and 4,” he said breaking into a classic black hymn to demonstrate. “If you get some white friends they’ll be clapping like this, ya’ll (laughter as Wright mocked someone clapping out of time).You say they can’t clap. But they clap in a different way! Africans have a different meter, a different tonality.”
“If you listen to University of Michigan and Michigan State marching bands at half time,” he said — impersonating a stiff, regimented, “typical white” band member — “their bands hit the field with exquisite European precision.”
“Now go to a Florida A&M and Grambling band!” The crowd roared appreciatively at the black school references, and Wright broke into a loose, 360-degree, hip-shaking, shoulder-swaying “black” shuffle around the back of the podium. “It’s different!”
He had the crowd rolling in the aisles now.
“You know Ted Kennedy cannot pronounce cluster consonants!” Wright said to more guffaws. “Very few people from Boston can. But nobody says to a Kennedy you speak bad English. Only to a black child was that said.”
He was trafficking in stereotypes, though to a p.c. theme to which few could object. But soon, Wright’s speech turned more serious. More subtly separatist. More Afro-centric.
He claimed these differences were genetic (imagine Charles Murray trying to pull this off!). European-Americans have a “left-brain cognitive, object-oriented learning style. Logical and analytical,” explained Wright, whereas blacks “learn not from an object, but from a subject. They are right-brain, subject-oriented in their learning style. That means creative and intuitive. The two worlds have different ways of learning.”
The logical conclusion of Wright’s words was that whites and blacks should be schooled separately, but he did not expand on the point. What was important is that whites and blacks inhabit different spheres — two worlds, in fact. And now we were at the nut of Wright’s message.
“What is different in the field of linguistics and marching bands,” he said, “is different in the field of biblical worship. We just do it different and some of our haters can’t get their heads around that!”
Wright was finally, unapologetically, addressing the incendiary, anti-Israel, anti-American, “God Damn America” remarks that had made him infamous. It’s a black thing — you can’t possibly understand.
“I come from a religious tradition that did not hold slaves but preached against slavery. I come from a religious tradition that says if you feel excited about something then be excited about it. Don’t stand there and say (now affecting a “white” accent): ‘He has hate speech. Isn’t he bombastic?’ ”
“‘I love Jesus, because he first loved me,’” he continued in mock-white voice. Then transitioned to those rapid-fire “NOs” that had preceded his “God damn America” outburst: “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! You feel it! I come from a religious tradition where we shout from the sanctuary and march on the picket line! Where we give God the glory and give the devil the blues!”
The message was clear: Back off black churches. The attack on Wright’s oratory was an attack on black culture by whites who historically don’t understand black traditions, who think blacks are deficient, who think whites are superior.
Wright ended on a note straight from the 1960s: “I believe a change is coming.”
But is it the same kind of change Barack Obama promises? They may share the same economic populism that blesses marching on the picket line, but Wright’s views on race don’t seem to have much in common with Obama’s public statements to date. Wright’s separatist message is hardly post-racial, while many have acclaimed Obama as embodying that unifying ideal. Obama said in his Philadelphia speech on race that “the profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is . . . that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.”
In that March 18 speech, Obama expressed the conviction that he represents a new generation of post-grievance black leadership, ready to take on the challenges that confront blacks in places like Detroit today: Crime and family disintegration.
But his good friend and pastor of 20 years is a symbol of how much of the black establishment still revels in old-school demagoguery.
— Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.