Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Can that conversation on race, um....wait?

The either/or is, ultimately, what protects us from ourselves. It is the ethical, we say, and it is on our side; so we bear no responsibility when things go wrong. Individuals who are hurt, we say, are caught on the wrong side of the either/or; and that's never our fault. Not 45 years ago, what Dr. King described was the norm in America, but the "either/or" of our public ethics said it was okay, or it was human nature, or it would change, but until it did, it was unethical to ask for something that sounded too much like a "both/and," which is always the only alternative we see to the either/or. The either/or cuts the both/and, as we all know, and leaves us with no choice but to wait:

For years now I have heard the word "wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more that 340 years for our constitutional and Godgiven rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored" when your first name becomes "Nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when your are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
But now the either/or has ended all of that, and either we are a racist country, or we are not; and we all agree, we are not:

MR. RUSSERT: When you announced your candidacy back in February of '07 in Springfield...

SEN. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: ...the same place Abraham Lincoln announced his candidacy--and we're showing it there on the screen--Reverend Wright was going to give the invocation, he was disinvited. He told The New York Times that you said to him, "You get kind of rough in the sermons, so we decided it's best for you not to be out there in public." And you cited a Rolling Stone interview...

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...where he said that one of the essential facts about the U.S. is, "We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." Now, that is so contrary to a speech I heard you gave yesterday about one nation, one people.

MR. RUSSERT: So you knew in '07...

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ..."This guy's a problem. I have to keep him out of the spotlight involving my campaign."

SEN. OBAMA: Right. Sure.

MR. RUSSERT: Why didn't you just say then, "You know, Reverend, we're going on different paths because this country does not believe in white supremacy and black inferiority."
At least, we didn't until we discovered the white rural voters of Pennsylvania, a "swing" bloc of voters who apparently didn't exist in any other state in the Union, but who now hold the key to the Democratic primary in their, wait, they aren't racist, though the pundits kept telling us they won't vote for a black man...well, now I'm confused. I thought we didn't believe in white supremacy and black inferiority. Maybe we don't believe in it, but we practice it anyway.

But racism is an either/or, a matter of ethics, a clear bright line. And as long as we declare that line clear and bright and deny any of us are on the wrong side of it, there is no both/and being practiced here, and we can cheer when Samuel L. Jackson shows up at the end of "Iron Man" in the character of Nick Fury, a white man in the comic books, a black man on screen. Because we don't believe in white suprmacy and black inferiority. Even though blacks still underperform in public schools due to poor funding of those schools. Even though blacks represent a majority of the prison population, all out of proportion to their numbers in the community; even though blacks are are more likely to get the death penalty for killing a white, than whites are for killing blacks. Even though the Dallas County D.A. now admits the prosecutions of blacks in Dallas County in the '70's and 80's was racially biased. We don't believe in white supremacy and black inferiority.

We just continue to practice it. But the either/or says our hands are clean, so we reap the benefits of the both/and. We get to eat our cake and have it, too. No wonder Tim Russert is so concerned about the opinions of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Rev. Wright wants to take us beyond the either/or to another place entirely.

Funny; Martin Luther King wanted to do the same thing, 45 years ago:

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips for Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Left there, you might think Dr. King was simply hate-mongering. You might criticize what he had to say, and even denigrate his use of tactics of civil disobedience, of actually breaking the law and conspiring with others to break the law (something Rev. Wright has not yet been even accused of). Which would explain why this letter is titled "From Birmingham Jail." But you would also leave out all the scholarly references Dr. King makes, makes while in jail, to Reinhold Niebuhr and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber and St. Augustine, Paul Tillich and St. Paul. Like Rev. Wright, Dr. King grounded his arguments in authority, both scriptural and secular, theological and philosophical. Rev. Wright mentioned the provenance of the AIDS virus in the context of a book on the subject; he mentioned the responsibility for 9/11 by quoting a former US ambassador. But take all that away, and you would have Dr. King saying something very different. Deny Dr. King the opportunity to explain himself, or reduce that explanation to soundbites, you might even think he was dangerous. As, indeed, many people did.

I do not mean to glibly compare Dr. King and the Rev. Wright; but as a nation, we've been down this road once or twice before. By the way, we knew King was a "Commie" in that picture, because it showed white people sitting next to black people.

Certain ideas, you see, are not acceptable until they are...acceptable. And that this the either/or at work again. Thomas Kuhn describes its function in science as the paradigm, which satisfies all questions with acceptable answers, until the questions shift significantly enough that the paradigm no longer holds, and a new one must take its place. Thus the Newtonian universe is not displaced by the Einsteinian, but still it is changed; and the relative universe remains, but gives ground to the quantum universe. And so on, and so on. And in the middle of these transitions, we are caught by those who prefer to control the discussion, rather than explore alternatives that might provide better answers. And we certainly shoot the messenger:

Here was a distinguished man with an exceptionally great career watching his whole life being reduced to a few sound bites created by some political trash. He finally had enough. He was interviewed by Bill Moyers, and he made two great speeches, one at the National Press Club and one at the NAACP national convention. Now let's look at the media trick involved in this.

With the exception of public radio and television, America's media are all private, for-profit corporations. There is no democracy in media world. Nobody on the outside – not the readers or viewers – has any say at all in what the corporate media decide to cover and decide to ignore. Ordinarily, NAACP keynote speakers are not given much coverage. People speak at the National Press Club all the time and get ignored or have just a snippet broadcast. Both of Wright's speeches were broadcast in full, and cable-TV pundits pontificated for almost a solid week about him.

"Why did he choose to go public now? Why seek out all of this publicity?" the pundits cried. Well, the answer is, he didn't. He agreed to one interview, and he agreed to make two speeches. The corporate media decided to shine the spotlight on him. They could have ignored him. They didn't. Instead, they gave him exceptional coverage and spent literally hours of airtime exposing their ignorance and stupidity by talking about him.
Why is the media so focussed on Rev. Wright? Because it hurts Obama? Or because it hurts the ideas he espouses? Or because the conventional wisdom resents a new either/or, which may actually be neither either/or nor both/and, but something transcendent. And what would that look like?

Johannes de Silentio imagines it as the voice that calls Abraham to take Isaac to Moriah. But what he imagines he can only understand as a teleological suspension of the ethical, and it isn't that. The critics of Rev. Wright imagine that is what he is proposing, too; because that is what they would propose, a new end which would justify the means they use to get there. That is the way of the children of this world, and they want you to believe that they alone can welcome you into the eternal homes. So the attacks begin, persist, continue unabated:

As for the Rev. Wright's views, they are not that radical taken in context. The attack on the World Trade Center was a direct result of our policies in the Middle East. We do have blood on our hands. Some years ago, I corresponded with a respectable doctor who was convinced the AIDS virus had been created in a laboratory. Don't be like some spoiled Mafia brat who wants to enjoy the fruits of crime while pretending not to know how it was acquired. And know that being "uppity" is the most American of all traits.
There is little Jesus says in the gospels that isn't a direct challenge to the status quo of most church goers in America, and nothing that he said which isn't grounded in the Hebrew scriptures.yet we never hear it that way. There was nothing Rev. Wright is reported to have said which he wasn't quoting from some other source, and yet the first way of dismissing his message is consider him the source alone of those questions and comments. "Is he right?" is a less relevant question than: "Shouldn't we think about that?" But thinking about almost anything that challenges the status quo is almost anathema to church goers, as Chris Hedges points out in his new book:

The liberal church is a largely vapid and irrelevant force...[that]...may not support the violent projects of apocalyptic killing championed by the atheists such as [Sam] Harris or [Christopher] Hitchens...but it also does not understand how the world works or the seduction of evil. The liberal church is a largely middle-class, bourgeois phenomenon, filled with many people who have profited from industrialization, the American Empire, and global capitalism. They often seem to think that if 'we' can be nice and inclusive, everything will work out.
And why is this?

What grips the heart most powerfully is not the peaceful possession of a precious object but the imperfectly satisfied desire to posses it and the constant fear of losing it.
It is, in other words, as American as apple pie. The question is: can we be Christian, and still be Americans? Aye, there's the rub; because our "precious object" is not God, and it is not other people. It is what we own and what we can hang on to. So when whites loot a flooded store in New Orleans for food, having been abandoned by their useless governments, they are feeding their families; when blacks do it, they are looting. But we don't believe in white supremacy and black inferiority, oh no, not us. We ignore the fact that we live in Omelas; we resent the person who shows us the child in the basement, and decry him as the heretic. We don't even want anyone to ask for a second opinion: as

So where do we go from here?

What we want is to be free from the burdens of history. We want to believe that if enough of the right people agree, then as a nation we no longer belief in white supremacy and black inferiority, even though that is the lesson written in blood and memory in this land for almost 400 years. But 45 years and a couple of laws and a national holiday later, we are free to act like that history never happened. The "sundown towns" never happened; the restrictive covenants on land never blocked certain people from purchasing property; the conditions Dr. King described in 1963, have all been swept away. Haven't they?

The conditions, yes; the consequences, no. Just look at New Orleans today. What other major city in the US would still be in such shambles? Where is our national sense of shame, our resolve to help our neighbors? Where is the proof that we don't believe in white supremacy and black inferiority? How can you have one without the other, and it is abundantly clear to we have, at least, the "other."

Rev. Wright upsets that vision, too; he presents something that cleaves the both/and of "Can't we all just get along?" It is something that could be simply a new either/or (merely continuing the cycle of the dialectic), or it could be, like Dr. King's offer, something completely different, something outside the theme and variations of "both/and" and "either/or." And while the pundits would like to treat the Rev. Wright as the blush on the cheek of a dying age, he is actually the present as it is, rather than the present Barack Obama would like us to simply believe in:

Anyone who does the math knows that America is on track to become a white-minority nation in three to four decades. Yet if there’s any coherent message to be gleaned from the hypocrisy whipped up by Hurricane Jeremiah, it’s that this nation’s perennially promised candid conversation on race has yet to begin.
What do we do now? Maybe we should stop waiting for salvation to come to us; maybe we should start moving toward salvation. Seems to me that's the kerygma of the gospels.

But of course, I could be wrong.

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