Barack Obama and Race

He was born in Hawaii. His mother was a white woman from Kansas and his father a black man from Kenya. His name is Barack Hussein Obama. He worked as a community organizer in Chicago before entering politics. He is a first-term United States Senator with a somewhat undistinguished record in that body. He is a few years shy of 50. Notwithstanding all these unconventional traits, he will be the nominee of the Democrat Party for president of the United States.

Senator Obama is a remarkably gifted individual who self-identifies as an “African-American,” although he has gone to considerable lengths to avoid being identified as “the black candidate.” On March 18, 2008, Obama gave what deserves to be viewed as an historic speech to the American people about race. Circumstances over which he had little control had driven him to the point where he had no choice but to give such a speech.

Jeremiah Wright is the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. For over twenty years, Senator Obama and his family have been members of this church. Wright officiated at the wedding of Obama and baptized his two daughters. Obama and Wright have a close personal relationship. It is reported that Obama contributes about $20,000 annually to the church, which is evidence that he is a serious church member.

In his speech, Obama sought to put to rest the controversy swirling around various sermons delivered by Wright. For example, Wright accused the United States government of planting the HIV aids virus in black people. He said that America was responsible for the events of “9/11.” These and many other tragedies that are endured by “people of color,” according to Wright, warrant black people saying “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America.”

Although Obama expressed his rejection of Wright’s anti-American venom, by trying to put it in an historical and generational context, he did not reject Wright, the man. Obama’s speech did not answer the question asked by many: “Why did Obama attend this church for over 20 years?” Senator Obama’s response to this question seemed to be that Wright is a good and decent man whose other qualities outweigh the occasional expression of anti-American sentiment. Moreover, according to Obama, Wright was on the threshold of retirement, so why leave the church in view of that fact?

Even if the Jeremiah Wright controversy is not a prime news topic, as it has been for quite some time, this issue for Senator Obama is not going to die. I predict it will haunt him until the election – and here is why. Although Senator Obama professes a desire to not be “the black candidate,” his pastor has effectively made him that. When Wright said that “Hillary will never be called a nigger,” and when Obama said that “I can no more disown him (Wright) than I can disown the black community,” the American people were being reminded in the strongest of terms possible of the factor of race in this election.

It is not that most Americans want Obama to “disown” blacks; they simply want their president to be nonracial – and Wright has raised the question of whether Obama, by association with Wright, is nonracial or not. For many, the stereotype of a black is one who is angry, paranoid, and with a chip on the shoulder. Until now, Obama has projected a soft reassuring voice that has defied the stereotype. Wright’s anger summons forth the stereotype and causes one to question whether there is another side to Obama that we the American people have not seen yet.

No Time To Moderate

On another level, there is also a segment of the American electorate that will need to be reassured that a “black” president will not take sides with blacks over whites. During his speech, blacks and whites listened intently for some clue as to where a President Obama might land on the issue of race. Other than underscoring his identification with the “black community,” Obama kept us guessing as he brilliantly explained the grievances of blacks and those of whites. Unfortunately, when it comes to race, it is usually not enough to be an impartial moderator who gives equal time to all sides. Every American president forced to confront the issue of race is left with no choice but to stake out a clear position.

When Obama talked about the resentment of working-class whites to busing and affirmative action, the ears of many blacks and whites were tuned in to hear what he would do about those issues. To leave his solutions left unsaid buys him a little time, but only a little. At some point, Senator Obama will either have to explain why he supports race preferences, as he did in 2006 when he opposed the Michigan anti-preference initiative, or alter his position. Politics is unkind to moderators; it only likes referees – those that must make difficult decisions.

The difficult issue for Obama is not his pastor; it is the candidate himself. Jeremiah Wright is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to anti-American anger and racial paranoia among blacks. The rather common belief that “Republicans hate blacks” and, therefore, President Bush was slow to act in the Katrina disaster because of “black hate” is a classic example of this paranoia. Wright’s “afro-centric” perspective is to be found not only in black churches but among a significant segment of black faculty, in ethnic studies departments, among black students on college campuses, and among other blacks in virtually every walk of American life. The pervasiveness of this black anger and paranoia is a major reason why Obama has found it necessary to tiptoe through the tulips on this issue, lest he alienate “the black community.”

If Senator Obama wants to become President Obama, moderating a dialog about race will not be sufficient to attain his objective. It will be necessary for him to provide true leadership to black Americans and say a number of things that many of them will not want to hear. But, sometimes leading the choir means turning one’s back on the audience.

(Ward Connerly is President of the American Civil Rights Institute, a former member of the Board of Regents of the University of California, and a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Bradley Prize for his defense of the American ideals of freedom, liberty and equality. To respond or comment, please send an e-mail to feedback@acri.org, or directly to Montecito Journal at: tim@montecitojournal.net.)