The Pastor v. the Politician

I’ve been talking to some white people who are shocked and appalled that their nice white-soothing Barack Obama and big bad white-scaring Reverend Jeremiah Wright could ever have been close to one another.


What,” my Caucasian neighbors want to know, “does it mean for what Obama is really all about?”


”What else don’t we know about him?”


How could such a “good black” have such a strong history with such a “bad black?”


Inquiring white minds want to know.


Sorry, there’s plenty that white (and other) folks don’t know or care to know about Obama – like how corporate and imperial he is, for example – but I don’t find anything surprising about Wright and Obama having once been strongly connected to one another. 


Their lives once crossed in logical and pleasant ways but now they have very different priorities and relationships to unpleasant truths about United States history past and present. 


Obama is a preternaturally ambitious politician who has to constantly walk treacherous racial tightropes because he thinks he needs to be the president of the white majority United States.


A couple decades back his more modest goal was to become known, accepted, and therefore churched on the black South Side of Chicago. This was very likely related to his effort to begin a political career.  This led naturally to finding a spiritual home in Reverend Wright’s parish, where the pastor didn’t (and doesn’t) have to believe (or pretend to believe) doctrinally imposed national fairy tales about the glorious United States. 


Now Obama is trying to “transcend race” on the path to the highest office in predominantly white America. Among other things, this requires him to play along with numerous fantasies, including the following claims from some of his leading speeches and publications:


* The “magical place” called the United States has long been and remains a benevolent force for good in the world.  It doesn’t do terrible and imperialist things that provoke attacks.


* As “the last best hope on Earth,” the U.S. has a legitimate right to police the world and station military bases and troops across the planet and take unilateral military action whenever it feels compelled to do so.


* The U.S. invaded Iraq out of an idealistic desire to “export democracy through the barrel of a gun” and has been trying “to put Iraq back together”


* The U.S. “free market system” (capitalism) is a monument to human prosperity, efficiency, mobility, and innovation.


* The U.S. is moving significantly beyond racism, with blacks having moved into the economic “mainstream” and come “90 percent” of the way to equality. 


* Those who interpret contemporary U.S. life and disparity through the prism of race and racism are attached to an obsolete world view from the 1960s.


* The predominantly white economic elite is interested in contributing to “the renewal of America” and just needs to be “asked” to help the U.S. overcome its problems of racial and economic injustice.


Weighed against real historical and contemporary social evidence (please see the sources in this essay’s endnotes), these are childish (or cynical) things to believe (or claim to believe). They are every bit as, if not more, absurd than Wright’s claim (the only truly questionable Wright assertion to be unearthed by his Orwellian inquisitors)that the U.S. government invented AIDS to wipe out minorities.


And they are quite naturally and widely rejected in the black community. I am confident that most politically cognizant black Americans would agree with Vernon S. Burton, who wrote the following in a perceptive letter to The New York Times one day after Obama’s instantly famous “Race Speech” in Philadelphia (an attempt to contain the Wright damage)last March:


“As a black man, I have to admit that it was strange to watch and listen to Senator Obama as he tried to assure white folks that he is not a racist and does not intend to hold them accountable for the plight of the black community.”


“It is ironic that a black man has to convince white people that the blame of the damage that 300 years of slavery, segregation, and oppression has done will not be laid at their door.”


“Well, Senator Obama is a politician, and we all know that politicians and truth are very often strangers to one another.  But to many of us in the black community, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright got it right” (Vernon S. Burton, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 19 March, 2008).


The fact that most white Americans have a hard time imagining why Burton and countless other blacks find Wright more right than wrong on American race relations (and U.S. foreign policy) is itself a telling symptom of the vast social, spatial, and perception gaps that persist in segregated America.  Having spent an unusually (for a Caucasian) large amount of time listening, working, and researching on the black side of the race chasm, I find nothing mysterious about it at all.


Why would black Americans believe Obama’s ideas on “magical” when their collective living standards are comparable to those of “Third World” nations like Bolivia and when U.S. authorities make imprisonment practically a normative experience for millions of young black males in the "land of the free"? Do whites really expect blacks to jump on board the nationally narcissistic American-Exceptionalist “We Are So Good” Train when institutional racism produces a 7-cents-to-1-dollar black-white wealth ratio in tne contemporary U.S.?


I mean, really.


I was employed in a black social service agency on Chicago’s South Side when the planes hit the towers. Nobody in my organization (the Chicago Urban League) seemed surprised that any number of aggrieved and dangerous people out there wanted to give Uncle Sam a big black eye.  That’s because black Americans tend to be inoculated against the American bedtime story claiming that the U.S. only does good and benevolent things in the world and never gives anybody a legitimate reasons to assault America.


They figure that what goes around comes around – that chickens do on occasion come home to roost.


For what it’s worth, there was no good empirical reason to be surprised by a strike on the U.S. emanating from the Middle East given U.S. policies there – U.S. troops occupying Saudi Arabia, sanctions that killed a million Iraqis, support for US client state Israel’s brutal and racist occupation of Palestine, the savage Desert Storm butchery of George Bush the First…stuff like that.  


I worked at the same agency in the black community in late 2002 and 2003 and never once ran into a single black American who for one moment believed any of George W. Bush’s case for invading Iraq. The many black people I talked to at the time completely rejected the “case for war” (well, for imperial invasion) They figured it was all about politics, power, empire, racism, and oil.


If anybody in white America cares, they were right. 


I could go on, but the point is that Reverend Wright doesn’t have to play along with the dominant white national mythology.  He doesn’t have to dance with Caucasians who believe the Fourth of July Fairy Tales, so bitterly, beautifully and in many ways precociously mocked in Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July:”


“WHAT TO the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy–a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages” (Frederick Douglass, Address to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, July 5, 1852).


The people of Iraq today could certainly relate to the line about America’s hollow “shouts of liberty and equality” – shouts Obama is compelled to make on a regular basis.


Not Wright. He doesn’t have to worry about frightening white voters, power-brokers, media authorities and foreign policy elites by telling basic (elementary) truths about U.S Empire and Inequality. 


He’s a black pastor.  His parishioners are almost all African-Americans on the South Side of the still highly segregated city of Chicago. They don’t generally believe all that goofy nationalistic stuff.


Wright can tell it like it is to people who know the score for reasons that have to do with persistent harsh realities related to skin color.


He doesn’t have to do his most famous former parishioner’s disturbing racial, moral, and ideological high-wire act.


Wright can observe that America was founded and grew on the basis of racism. This is a largely accurate and reasonable statement (1).


Wright can say that white supremacist racism is alive and well, quite deeply entrenched in the contemporary U.S. – another accurate statement Obama has to reject (2).  


Wright can acknowledge and denounce the American Empire that provokes resentment and attack, usually in areas we’ve occupied but on one recent occasion (September 11, 2001) on the "homeland" (itself a very revealing "mainstream" word) itself (3).  “No Shock Barack” can’t.  


Wright is free to observe that two plus two equals four.  Assuming that he needs to be president, Obama has to run around saying over and over again that two plus two equals five.  To give the accurate computation is to sink his chances at the White House.


No wonder Wright is having so much more fun.


The other thing about Wright is that he’s a lot (to understate matters)closer than Obama to what Frederick Douglass called "the Christianity of Christ," very different from the curious pseudo-Christianity that justified slavery, Indian Removal, and other American abominations up to and including the occupation of Iraq. As Gary Wills noted in his book What Jesus Meant, the Jesus who emerges from a serious reading of the gospels is an uncompromising enemy of wealth and hierarchy who said that "it is easier for a camel to get through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s reign" (Mark, 10.23-25). Opposed to all forms of hierarchy, not just economic inequality, this Jesus "rebuke[d] followers who jockey[ed] for authority over each other and over others,” saying that "everyone lifting himself up will be abased and anyone abasing himself will be lifted up" (Luke, 14.11).


"There cannot be a clearer injunction of hierarchy of any kind," says Wills, adding that Jesus was "absolute in his opposition to violence" and remarkably indifferent to politics, saying "Caesar’s matters leave to Caesar" (Mark, 12.17).


This is hardly a call for making a run for the White House and becoming the titular head of the world-supremacist American Empire Project.


Another man who was more into the radical-liberationist “Christianity of Christ” than Obama and who also didn’t have to kiss up to white voters was Martin Luther King, Jr. In the spring of 1967, after he went public with his opposition to the Vietnam War, King was asked by liberal and left politicos to run for the U.S. presidency. King turned the activists down, saying that he preferred to think of himself "as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather being a political candidate…I’ve just never thought of myself as a politician."  The minute he threw his hat into the American winner-take-all presidential ring, King knew, he would be encouraged to compromise his increasingly leftist and fundamentally moral message against racism, social inequality, and militarism.


Reflecting his chastening confrontation with concentrated black hyper-poverty and race-class oppression in the "liberal" urban North and his shock at the horrors of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, King came to radical conclusions. "For years I have labored with the idea of refining the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there," he told journalist David Halberstam in early 1967. "Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution…” The black freedom movement, King told a crowd at the university of California-Berkeley, had shifted from civil rights to human rights, involving "a struggle for genuine equality" that "demands a radical redistribution of economic and political power." It would be hard to find mass political support for this goal, King said, "because many white Americans would like to have a nation which is simultaneously a democracy for White America and a dictatorship over Black Americans.” 


By this time, King had identified the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence" in the world and denounced U.S. support for U.S.-investment-friendly Third World dictatorship, all part of what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated": racism, economic exploitation [capitalism], and militarism.


As King knew, these were not winning ideas in the American political system as constructed in his time. They were moral and empirical observations that contained openly acknowledged radical-democratic policy implications that led far beyond the barriers of really existing U.S. politics.


Obama can’t make such basic observations, even if wanted to. His former pastor can. That’s the difference between them now, magnified beyond repair by political contingencies and corporate media.



Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (forthcoming in summer of 2008). 





1. Here are some books (a very small sample)on that: Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (Chapel Hill, NC, 1975); Michael Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York, 1975); Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present; Richard Drinnon, Violence in the American Experience: Winning the West (New York, 1979); Frederick Doulgass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom; Ward Churchill, Notes From a Native Son (1996); Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People of the United States (Secaucus, NJ, 1974).


2. Here are just three books on that, the last one relating directly to Wright and Obama’s home city of Chicago: Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000); Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003); Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).


3. On the often savage and racist imperialism that has long provoked resentment and response, see Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York: Vintage, 1995); Anonymous, Imperial Hubris (New York, 2004); Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York, 2006); Richard J. Barnet, Intervention and Revolution (New York, NY: Meridian, 1972);William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2005); Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: New Press, 2002 [1967]); Noam Chomsky For Reasons of State (New York: New Press, 2003 [1970]);  Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1991); Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot; Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Over Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan, 2003); Noam Chomsky, World Orders, Old and New (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 1996); Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston, MA: South End, 1993); Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (Boston, MA: South End, 1987); Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1999); Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2007); Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley CA, 1995); David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (Oakland, CA: 2003);Alexander Cockburn, Corruptions of Empire (new York: Verso, 1987); Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (New York: Verso, 2001); Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Holt & Holt, 2004); Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan, 2004); Gabriel Kolko, Main Currents in American History (New York, 1976), pp. 348-398; Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004); Rajul Mahajan, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism (New York: Monthly Review, 2002); Thomas McCormick, America’s Half Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); John Pilger, Hidden Agendas (New York: New Press, 1998); Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), pp. 1-88; Zinn, A People’s History;  Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War (New York: Seven Stories, 2002); Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology  (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990).  I’d start with Blum.  

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