You wouldn’t understand

I may be the only person who’s not become worshipful of Obama’s speech on race and religion and who finds it more disturbing the more I think about it. But then, I am.

At its core, his speech is more not less divisive. For his real message about Jeremiah Wright and his words was: It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand.

By putting himself in the position of explaining and justifying Wright and thus his association with him, Obama may have repudiated Wright’s worst words but he explained them as the product of a racial experience rather than racism.

Then he tried to dig himself out of the hole he dug for his white grandmother by calling her “a typical white person” and, worse, by saying that such typical white people are scared of black people. His spokesman made it no better when he said to Huffington Post that “her fears were understandable and typical of those often shared by her generation.” So now the Obama campaign finds itself in a position of not only explaining and justifying Wright’s racism but also whites’ racism and calling it understandable. Now it’s a white thing; you wouldn’t understand.

This is not ending separation. And the pity of that is that Obama could have done the opposite, which is what I wished for in my post the other day. He could have declared himself an American of every race, thus no race. That was his promise when he emerged on the national scene in his Democratic convention speech. Nick Kristof reminded me of it yesterday:

In that speech, Mr. Obama declared that “there is not a black America and a white America… . There’s the United States of America.” That’s a beautiful aspiration, and we’re making progress toward it. But this last week has underscored that we’re not nearly there yet.

Nor is Obama.

The discussion is reaching an absurd level as the Obama campaign gives The New York Times a picture of Bill Clinton meeting Jeremiah Wright in the White House, as if a meeting is an endorsement and mind meld. This morning, Matt Lauer on today gasped that this came on 9/11 — but not that 9/11; it was a few years earlier — and in the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Then Joe Scarborough said that it’s rather ridiculous to attack your opponent because her husband once met with the minister you’re defending.

I know the popular thing to do is to gush over Obama’s speech. I’m hearing no criticism and little analysis of it in media or conversation. So maybe it’s just me. I wouldn’t understand.

  • Keith1965

    Jeff writes, “At its core, his speech is more not less divisive.” I think that is an odd spectrum to choose for judgment. To me, the speech was a simply honest assessment of where things stand.. and that is a highly unusual tactic for a politician. I have hear Obama supporters and non-Obama supoorters say, in effect, “yep, Obama’s speeech was the first time I have heard a politician talk about race in a way that matched what I see and hear in the world.”

    The big rap on Obama for some folks has been that he just blows smoke, his speeches are all aspirational with no grounding in the real world. His “hope” sounds good, but it is hard to believe it could really come to pass.

    Now he gives a speech which blows zero smoke and makes an clear eyed assessment of race relations (at least as he sees it) and the criticism is just the opposite… he didn’t reach into the rhetorical heaven and make some claim about being “beyond race.” (If he had said that, would you really have bought it?)

  • Paul

    In that speech, Mr. Obama declared that “there is not a black America and a white America


    Tell that to the people who refer to themselves as hyphenated Americans, Mr. Obama. I am an American with Scottish ancestry but I do not run around referring to myself as a Scottish-American. I am an American.

  • Sen. Obama gave a clear-eyed assessment, but then offered a solution that contradicted his alleged grand theme. He could improve the situation by saying Americans need to come together, to the extent that any politician can in the short-term. (I’m skeptical.) But he then undermined that message by trying to unite us against foreigners. He still dealt in Us vs. Them politics. I don’t consider it an improvement to change the players.

  • Jeff — a couple of minor quibbles with your paraphrase of Obama’s argument

    For his real message about Jeremiah Wright and his words was: It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand. I interpreted his sentiment otherwise: “It was a black thing. That insight will help you understand. But that was the ‘80s and things have improved since then.”

    Then he tried to dig himself out of the hole he dug for his white grandmother by calling her “a typical white person” and, worse, by saying that such typical white people are scared of black people.. I interpreted his sentiment otherwise: “When white people are sometimes resentful of affirmative action or scared of inner city crime, it is wrong to dismiss those concerns as typical white prejudice.”

    This is what he said: “To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.” It is hard to see how you can paraphrase that as “explaining and justifying…whites’ racism and calling it understandable.”

  • Jeremy C.

    Thanks, Andrew!

    I wouldn’t have been able to sum up my dissent so compactly and you covered most of it for me.

  • I don’t think you and I saw the same speech. He didn’t try to write it off as “a black thing” at all, in fact he dug deeply and truthfully into why there is anger and resentment on both sides of the divide.

  • “He could have declared himself an American of every race, thus no race.”

    What does that even mean? You’re speaking in abstract phrases that sound nice but don’t really have any basis in reality. He isn’t an American of every race, so pretending that he is and that there aren’t still pertinent issues with race would be meaningless politician speech — the type of speech Hillary Clinton would be more likely to give.

  • kat

    He said what he hoped would put the issue to rest. If he is against such anger, how could he have stuck with a minister who preached racism–Blacks vs Whites. My minister preaches that we are all one–children of God. That’s what my kids hear–not what Obama’s kids hear. Obama supporters will twist the words any way that will make the chosen one look good. Obama will say whatever will get him elected. And I won’t understand–because I’m just a white person like Jeff Jarvis. Not understanding is my problem–it’s a white thing.

  • Jeff, I think you’re basically rignt that Obama comments during the radio was not his best moment. But I do think the author of the Philly Gossip blog misquoted him and this was picked up by HuffPost. The philly blog now says that it has been updated (and HuffPost didn’t pick it up), but I still think it has the quote wrong.

    Here’s what I heard:

    “The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn’t. But, she is a typical white person, who, ah, you know if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, (pause) there’s a reaction that’s been bred into our experiences that don’t go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way. And that’s just the nature of race in our society. We have to break through it. And what makes me optimistic is you see each generation feeling a little bit less like that.”

    At the pause, Obama makes a shift from talking about his Grandmother to people in general. He doesn’t say “there’s a reaction *in her*,” as the philly blog quotes. Listen to the clip again. And he says the reaction has been “bred into *our* experiences.”

  • Andrew,
    Well said but you’re explaining his explaining.
    He wanted to explain black racism so he was forced to explain white racism. That’s the boat he’s rowing.
    At its best, this is the “root causes” rhetoric, which has gotten us nowhere, in my view. At its worst, it’s a political bind.
    Racism is racism and I believe it should be condemned. I also hoped that he would move to a new definition of an American (but that is just me; I grew up in the melting pot era; others wouldn’t understand :-))

  • Jeff,

    You say, “Racism is racism,” but what you don’t seem to understand (or, at least, are unwilling to acknowledge) is that racism is defined by the dominant culture, which means we, as white people, have defined what that is for centuries. It is possible for a black person to be “racist” only if they hate white people purely based on the color of their skin — but that seems to rarely be the case. There is always much more baggage than simply skin color for a black person facing a world dominated by white men (i.e., you and me).

    My friend Anthony Smith ( and I had a conversation about this recently, which I invite you to watch:

    Steve K.

  • I see a dangerous trend here in explaining racism, thinking that is a path to understanding. Substitute another bigotry…. Is there an explanation for hating Jews? Some thought there was. Is there an explanation today for hating Muslims? Some think so. For hating gays? Women? Men? Immigrants? Americans?
    That’s a ride on the slippery slope.

  • Well to be fair Jeff, you also thought the Iraq War was a good idea, so perhaps your judgement ain’t exactly unimpeachable. :) But seriously, Obama did not excuse any sort of racism in his speech, he condemned it across the board. But he also explained to many white Americans who have been otherwise disinterested for several generations that for most black people the issue of racism hasn’t been solved, no matter what the drumbeat is from the mainstream press and the conservative movement.

    To me, a lot of the “shock” over Wright’s speech echoes the “somebody hates us?” we heard after 9/11. Wright’s speech was out of bounds and 9/11 was a cowardly act of mass murder, but we Americans have to quit pretending to ourselves that everything is hunkydory in the world or within our borders.

    As many of us wrote back then, it is possible to hold two thoughts in your head at one time: Wright is a freaking idiot, but racism is an integral part of American culture to this day.

  • Mel

    Roland Martin, a commentator for CNN, and contributor to its blog wrote a piece based on facts (and after viewing whole sermon) today, 21 March – the International Day for the Elimincation of Racial Discrimination. Sowell should do his homework before jumping on the disgreaceful media feeding *hysteria* (really):

    March 21, 2008

    The full story behind Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 sermon

    As this whole sordid episode regarding the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has played out over the last week, I wanted to understand what he ACTUALLY said in this speech. I’ve been saying all week on CNN that context is important, and I just wanted to know what the heck is going on.

    I have now actually listened to the sermon Rev. Wright gave after September 11 titled, “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall.” It was delivered on Sept. 16, 2001.
    It’s worth a read for those who listen selectively and, when they do, can’t “hear” what is being said because of what Calhoun called “motivated ignorance” (it might require self-examination and learning something you don’t want to know about the self.)

  • Jeff —

    Jeff, you say “racism is racism and I believe it should be condemned” and you “see a dangerous trend here in explaining racism, thinking that is a path to understanding.” I think you are begging the questions that Obama is raising in his speech.

    To me, Obama was asking — again in my paraphrase — what if the anger and hostility coming from black mouths is not hatred but pain? What if the resentment and fear coming from white mouths is not bigotry but anxiety? That is the context in which he warns us against dismissing the legitimate grievances of white people with the simple putdown of racism: “When they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot at a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they are told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudice, resentment builds over time.”

    What if the hurtful sentiments that get labeled, and therefore dismissed, as racism are not, in fact, racist, but are merely resorts to the unthinking, culturally ingrained, stereotypical language of prejudice — the language he heard from his own grandmother? Obama supports this hypothesis by observing that this sloppy, stereotypical worldview is seen most clearly when the races are segregated — “in the barbershop or the beauty shop or around the kitchen table” or in the pews on a Sunday morning.

    So, far from explaining racism, he seems to be arguing against leveling charges of racism recklessly. Hence his criticism of pastor Wright’s remarks: “They express a profoundly distorted view of this country, a view that sees white racism as endemic…The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermon is not that he spoke about racism in our society, it is that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made.”

  • chico haas

    Xlnt analysis, Mr. Jarvis.

    Racism is an unsweepable minefield. Which is why we choose to walk around it.

    We laugh at those countries, like the Balkans, who have these ancient animosities. “Wow, somebody stole a chicken in 1410 and they’re still fighting over it.” Well, slavery in America is our ancient animosity. Can’t be undone, reparated or affirmativized out of existence. It was a huge mistake and we’ll never pay for it. HOWEVER, it might be neutralized, as one conservative pundit said, if we keep intermarrying like crazy. I blew my chance; the rest of you get busy.

  • I think that voicing a dissenting opinion based on careful analysis of a subject is an intellectually healthy thing to do, especially in a blog. It’s a good way to start an intelligent discourse between people.

    This is my only comment on the subject, because I’m not a big fan of politics and usually don’t pay much attention to speeches given but instead try to focus on the past track records of the candidates. Although, I’ve been following what you’ve been saying about Obama and am glad there is a vocal opinion out there that goes against what other bloggers have been saying about him. I’m not a big fan of gushing, either.

  • Harry

    Yes, Obama’s speech was congealed gibberish. But what I can’t understand is how anyone can’t also see that Clinton is practicing a similar “politics of pity” with her continual bemoaning any criticism of her as being gender-based.

    The Democrats have been running on identity group politics since the late 1960s and I must admit I’m getting a kick at watching them tear themselves apart as two competing identity groups clash head-on. But given the dreadful prospect of a McCain presidency—–a man whose whole campaign seems premised on the notion he’s owed the presidency because he was tortured as a POW—–I wish the Democrats could find an alternative to Obama or Clinton. Let’s all pray fora brokered convention. . . . . .

  • I think there’s a different between noticing race and having resentments and fears and even prejudices and actively hating another group. Both are racism, but they differ in their intensity and in their underlying intent.

    The frightening this is that the less radical version can rapidly become dangerous when galvanized by a demagogue like Hitler. Hatred is the product of fear tempered into a movement.

    By acknowledging that we all have those feelings, Senator Obama attempted to diffuse some of the tension and lead us to a less fearful, more honest discussion of where we are as a nation. I don’t see it as a black thing or a white thing. It’s an American thing. We all experience it. He said that unequivocally.

  • “the frightening this” = “the frightening thing”

  • Unfortunately, as with all race issues it looks like people are reading into Obama’s speech with whatever natural bias they already have. If you believe in unity then Obama was highlighting the differences we might not want to admit and challenging us to overcome them. If you are sensitive to race then you saw that he created division by separating us instead of unifying us.

    I’m hopeful that in coming generations, as the wounds of race start to heal, that we can get past these biases and start to really tackle these problems. Until then, the undercurrent of bias pervades all of these seemingly polite discussions.

  • MD

    Sean I could not word it any better.

  • I find the whole controversy silly personally. I really don’t have a problem with the whole “God Damn America” comments. Occasionally, sadly and most recently, that phrase has applied to this country when fear and greed has been guiding this country more then our ideals.

    Sadly though Obama got painted in a corner by the press that continues to persue the narrative (infotainment) its trying to generate rather then issues (boring). The problem is when you try to discuss race and racism in this day and age you are setting yourself up for failure. No matter what, people are going to be offended in some form or fashion. Its no longer likes the days of MLK where there was a clear “enemy” to fight and rage against. Much like terrorism, the feelings are diverse, spreadout and difficult to define and nail down. I applaud Obama for trying but on this he was screwed from the beginning. Not responding would have been seen as weak and responding is seen as feuling the race issue.

    No matter what direction he jumps, the landing is going to be bad. He has now said his peace and he needs to try and move on and hope the press gets bored and moves on. Once the press moves on, so will the public as our attention span is defined more by what the media covers then anything else.

    Full disclosure: I voted for Clinton and still don’t see any compelling reason to be for Obama. His message of “change” is nice but in the end he has just proven he has better speech writers and oratory skills then everyone else. His message is just a variation of Kerry’s “I have a plan” talk that went no where. And nope, John “continue Bush policies, done better” McCain doesn’t interest me either.

  • tonynoboloney

    The words speak for themselves. “typical white person” He meant what he said. To use “typical” when referencing a woman, man, Jew, black, Arab, or anyone else is a crass generalization and should always be avoided. Just imagine the fallout had Obama been reffered to as a “typical black man” by any of the MSM. Obama was if not the first, at least an early dissenter when Imus called women basketball players “nappy headed hos” and called for his immediate dismisal. This (as we find out) while attending a church which regularly calls all white people racists.

    Barack Obama is an Ivy league educated liberal Democrat attorney who practices Chicago style identity politics. He will say or do anthing to get himself elected. I highly doubt that America is ready, willing or able to allow for this man to be president.

    What irks me the most is allowing this man to dictate the terms of this election, turning what should be a refferendum on the war in Iraq, the US economy, ilegal immigration, homeland security and health care into a racial donnybrook. Shame on him, shame on us for allowing it.

  • MD

    Putting cards on table: I’m black, I’ve heard some of the things Rev. Wright said countless times from friends and members of my family. That feeling has earned its place in black culture in America and to not consider that, however much you disagree with it, is destructively short-sighted. Jarvis is taking an unfortunate snowblind view of right vs. wrong, racist or not racist as if we are all filling in an application and checking boxes. Then he uses suspicious terminology – “it’s a black thing…” to basically make a political point which this whole issue floats so far above. I’m shocked that even a well-educated liberal doesn’t grasp the full complexity of race and black racism. I’m not asking for any attack of the guilt historic sympathy here and that’s hardly what the speech was suggesting or asking for.

    To acknowledge that white people and black people are racists, have issues with the other based on their skin color, is not “calling it understandable.” What’s understandable to Barack is what’s understandable to me.

    My granddad was roughly Wright’s age and so is my grandmom. They grew up in the south then after he served in the war they moved to the rural midwest. They have stories that made my skin crawl. As do my parents. I don’t. And that’s a joy because I don’t want to. But they have serious mistrust of white people, even though they know plenty of them. What Obama said about the barbershop talk is true and I know this not from some profound awareness unattainable to the majority. I know it through experience. I know where there anger and mistrust comes from and we clash because I don’t see it most times.

    But empathizing with even a little bit of that past hurt – just as Obama empathized with the family of immigrants who see no cause to be belittled racially and own none of that past – is beyond politics and it’s why the speech was roundly applauded. Thank God.

    So to Jarvis, is it all just politics to you or can you maybe take 1 breath from opposing the candidate to acknowledge a moment of opportunity for the country? You may not like the man, you may not like that he is the impetus for the discussion, but engaging in it helps the country and the country you leave your kids move on and grow.

  • elizabeth

    Having heard Barak’s impressive speech at the last Democratic convention and then after Obama first announced his own candidacy, I kept yelling back at my TV screen at reporters and news analysts who persisted in referring to him as “black”. “No, No No!! I’d shout. He is race neutral—LET him be race neutral—he is equally black AND white. He has experienced and straddled the racial divide for his entire life. He understands it all. He lives in the world and can speak to our country and offer healing in a way few others can. His own DNA is the mixed DNA of our country, and he can bring us closer together if he is not artificially put in a black box.” Apparently no one heard my yelling.

    I kept waiting for Obama, himself, to call people on it. To eloquently insist that he is post racial. To eloquently insist that he is proud of his black African blood but that he unequivocally refuses to be “typed” as a black candidate any more than be typed as a white candidate. To eloquently insist that his black “half” is no larger in volume than his white “half”, no more influencial than his white half. To eloquently and forcefully insist that he is first and foremost an American and a member of the HUMAN race.

    The speech in Philadelpia was his golden chance to address race, but also to re-position himself and his candidacy as post-racial and race neutral. It was his chance to spank those who want to make it only about identity politics and to forcefully reject that tack. I am so sorry he did not do so when he had the chance, and indeed could have, because he had all of America’s ear. I am so sorry that he clearly does not want to be President as much as I thought he did, or for the noble reasons I thought he did.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, as a rich white guy, you sound a little like Geraldine Ferraro. Like, uppa here in the windowed study in my house at the end of the long driveway in my white suburb in racist New Jersey, I see Obama as equating white and black racism.

    Uhhh, like, take an apartment in Newark and then talk to me. You are embarrassing yourself.

  • “Cooler,”
    I might give you an ounce of respect if you had the balls to say who you are and where you live, as I do. But you don’t. So I don’t. Simple as that.

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  • Thanks Jeff for airing this out. It’s obviously a discussion that needs time in the open.
    I have to tip my hat to Andrew Tyndall. I couldn’t say it any better.

    We’ll get there.

  • Why is everyone taking the speech apart and using one element to make a claim? is the full transcript, and I recommend reading it to anyone interested in using it to make a claim.

    But lets look at the comments – IN FULL CONTEXT:
    “At its core, his speech is more not less divisive. For his real message about Jeremiah Wright and his words was: It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand.”
    “But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam….

    I can no more disown (Reverend Wright) than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

    the second issue, the “typical” comment, is from a radio interview and, bugger me, if it isn’t harder to choose juct the rigth word in an instant. Far harder again when teh person isn;t jst completely evil.

    And honestly, if a “typical” response isn’t to cross the street when a black person crosses a white path, and remember, typical doesn’t mean, despite what everyone wants to redefine it as, “everyone”, it means a common thing most of a group does, then black people that see this happen must be paranoid! And further, surely in the context of his grandmother, an 86 years old woman, it makes complete sense to describe such behaviour as “typical”.

    Now, by all means, we can all get huffy and claim that us whiteys are victims here, but pulease, everything Obama has said is accurate, on both sides, and the sooner we get past a pissing match about whether or not this is the way it is, and this hurt we feel about being called rascists, the sooner we can find ways to actually improve them.

  • Kevin from California

    I think we probably wouldn’t agree on much, Mr. Jarvis, but I certainly do agree with you on this issue. I am really glad you had the courage to critique this, because I don’t see anyone else doing so.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, do you think the kids in in Newark or Camden have schoolteachers who are as qualified as those teaching your kids in the suburbs? Do these cities have proportionately the same tax revenues to maintain parks, repair streets, etc.? Do the people who live in these cities have access to jobs in the toney corporate parks that dot the suburban landscape? Or do they need a car to get to the best paying jobs? Are your kids likely to run into several drug dealers on their walk to school?

    Lots of people like to make sense of this by saying that they work hard and made enough money to not have to live in places like that. But in fact, these same people grew up where the schools were decent, and the roads maintained, and dad had a good job. And lots of people who rely on the meritocracy argument fail to see that their family’s race might have contributed to their success.

  • Cooler,
    You are living in nonsequitorville. You are presuming views I do not have about topics that are not being discussed here. And you still reveal nothing about where you live. My background — my family’s rise from poverty in Appalachia — has nothing to do with this discussion.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, Obama said that black Americans see a different world than white Americans. This is, perhaps, for all the reasons I noted above. Because if you are black and live in this country you more likely than white people to:

    have unqualified teachers in your neighborhood schools,
    live in a city where the tax base is shrinking, and the population too,
    not have access to the best paying jobs that moved with the corporate headquarters to the ring of suburbs surrounding cities,
    be a vicitim of crime.

    So we shouldn’t be surprised that black Americans might not think that institutional racism has been eradicated, or that the playing field is equal. And while Rev. Wright’s comments are ugly and should be denounced, they grow from a perception of the nation that differs from mine as a white person.

    I live in the Midwest, in a state that Barack and Hillary battled over. My neighbors are white and out of work. They are angry about the economy and their sinking home values and the disappearing jobs that go overseas. They are angry that poor people get so much government aid and complain about welfare moms. They equate poverty with being black.

  • “I know the popular thing to do is to gush over Obama’s speech.” Certainly that’s why I liked it. Because everyone else did.

  • Cooler,
    Thanks for the response. but you’re still in the suburbs of nonsequitorville. I’m not saying that racism is eradicated, not at all. But I don’t see how racism + racism = no racism. For Wright to exhibit racism as his response to racism — especially as a minister and a political figure, which he is — is not a model for anyone.

  • what bothers me most about this discussion is that people are assuming rev. wright’s words are racist and anrti-American based on the soundbites culled for TV news stories.

    On my blog, I have featured larger clips of the speeches featuring Wright’s words on 9/11 and the god d—n America quote. When you see the speech in its full context, you’ll realize that what he was saying is much more understandable.

    In the case of his quote that 9/11 was chickens coming home to roost, Wright said during the sermon he was quoting career ambassador Edward Peck from an appearance he made on Fox News. Peck is an oted, longtime critic of the war in Iraq.

    In the case of the GD American quote, he was referring to the way America refuses to acknowledge the moral impact of killing innocents when we retaliate against our foes militarily.

    The video is embedded on my blog, if you care to watch it.

  • I’ll also say, as someone who writes a lot about race and racism, that prejudice and racism are very complex issues and tough to understand.

    There are some people who concsiously believe their race is superior to others. those people and ideas are easiest to deal with, and they have largely been discredited by mainstream culture.

    But there are subtle values of beauty, intelligence, acheivement and worth that are attached to race and class which are much more pernicious. and because these ideas are wrapped in experiences that are real and valid, they are much harder to dissect.

    Fox example, i am african american. When I was starting my career, the newspaper where I worked was sold and just 85 editorial employees out of 230 total employees kept their jobs. I was one of the lucky few. I’m sure to some white people who were laid off — including a friend who went on to become Pulitzer finalist a few years ago — I was kept on because of my race. they didn’t want to lay off a black reporter, they might say.

    But other black reporters at my experience level did get laid off. And as a young reporter, I was cheap. Some editors at the paper were trying to groom me to become the paper’s next music critic.

    I don’t really know why my job was spared. But i’m sure some people felt it was an example of reverse racsim. So are they racist to have that opinion, or were my bosses racist to preserve my job in the first place?

    I know this is an unfair assumption, so I will apologize in advance for making it. But I have found that many white people think prejudice and racism only comes in the form of the Ku Klux Klansman on horseback, or George Wallace fighting for segregated schools — something obvious and obviously pernicious. It is tough convince people that prejudice can come in very attractive, reasonable-sounding forms. You don’t have to be a bigot to indulge prejudice — you just have to be unaware.

    i rarely use the term racist when I write about issues of prejudice, because that, to me, is a term reserved for the most extreme cases of bigotry. Prejudice is a better term, because it decribes a set a values which conciously or unconsciously gives weight to certain cultures over others. this is a much tougher dynamic to battle, but it is what sits at the heart of institutionalized racism and disadvantage.

    These are tough concepts to explain, discuss and resolve. But Obama is saying, basically, that you dismiss the seeming prejudice of people on any side of this discussion at your own peril. Because prejudice and racism these days, are rarely simple matters, much as we might want them to be.

  • Jeff — can you clarify which specifics of Jeremiah Wright’s ministry qualify as racist? Is Trinity United’s black nationalism racist? Or are separatism and racism separate categories in your mind? If separatism itself is racist do you extend that criticism to all non-integrated social organizations institutions? Are there cases where organizations of racial solidarity are acceptable or do you categorize them as racist as long as they are race-based? Is Wright’s analysis that the United States is controled by rich white people a racist analysis? Or do you rest your accusations of racism against him on the inflammatory portions of his sermons not his underlying sociopolitical worldview? Following Deggans,do you see racism and bigotry and prejudice and stereotyping and race-consciousness as separate analytic categories — or do they all amount to different words for the same thing?

  • Andrew,

    I’m busy writing the book today — and you’re asking for a book.

    I don’t think I need to convince you that Wright’s language is divisive. Barack Obama has called it divisive.

    I was raised in this country in a time when the when the melting pot was a goal and a dream. As I’ve said on these pages, we have updated that dream. We don’t want cultures to melt. Pride and history — including pride in overcoming disadvantage and prejudice — matter. I’m not asking us to melt together. But I do still have the hope that we can come together. Divisiveness is not a path to that goal.

    I read one of Wright’s sermons. And then I reread Martin Luther King’s “I have seen the promised land” and “I have a dream speeches.” Google them and compare them with Wright’s language. Here is King’s:

    But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

    The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

    We cannot walk alone.

    And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. . . .

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today!

    I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

    I have a dream today! . . . .

    From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

    And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

    Free at last! Free at last!

    Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

  • Cooler Heads

    I used to think I wasn’t prejuidice because I was “colorblind.” I saw all people equally. And because of that I thought that others who saw race weren’t as moral and righteous as I.

    But not seeing race is actually white racism, to some extent. Because whites like me have benefited from years of the benefits of being white in the US. And while I don’t like affirmative action, I also understand that growing up black, and being a black adult in America means having an experience vastly different from my own. To not see that, to turn away from that truth, is to engage in a subtle and somewhat unconcious form of racism. I affirm my goodness by being colorblind, and at the same time engage in racism by being unwilling to see that race and racism are a big part of what is at work in the US.

    I am also a woman, and I agree with all the research that says of all disadvantaged groups, white women have had the best deal under affirmative action. White women have done very well in comparison to men and women of color. Without question. We outnumber men in college and graduate school. We outnumber both male and female minorities in same. Women who follow the exact same career trajectory as men (meaning no time out for childrearing, no parttime jobs, etc, same grueling path to the top) make as much money as their male counterparts. (Most women wisely opt out of that grind.)

    While I don’t care for some of what Rev. Wright says, I understand that he says it in a context many whites may not fully grasp. And clearly, the soundbites played on the news and on Fox, ripped out of the rest of sermon, are not reflective of what he meant entirely.

  • Jeff, you certainly struck a chord – proving racial, religious, and ethnic bigotry are still extremely hot buttons in this country. It is great to see how many people responded and how the threads of discussion are evolving. Not to sound too Pollyana-ish, but I think anything that forces discourse on this 800 pound gorilla, which is our country’s dirty little secret, can’t be all bad.

    That said, I think your choice of words in the very first sentence, “worshipful”, is the thing that makes me most uneasy about this man. He should represent everything I’m looking for in a presidential candidate, he’s smart, insightful, engaging, articulate, moral, and charismatic. But instead, I find the aura of worship that has materialized around him, this “cult of Obama”, to be sort of scary. There seems to be an appetite among Democrats to anoint a saviour. To find someone who will weave such a dazzling vision of peace and stability and unity that, like desert wanderers dying of thirst, we will flock to him to drink the KoolAid. And anyone (including other Democrats) who challenges this saviour is a spoiler who must be stopped. I would like to think that both Democratic candidates have strengths that should be carefully and reasonably evaluated as we make decisions. I would prefer not to have a preference for Hilary be considered heretical.

  • Jeff —

    Accept my apology for demanding at least a master’s thesis from you on this Saturday afternoon, if not quite a book. I mean that sincerely, not tongue in cheek.

    I respect Eric Deggans’ journalism in this area. I happen to be an occasional source when he writes on television news. It was his nuance that inspired my convoluted inquiry to you.

    Your reply is, I think, on point: “I don’t think I need to convince you that Wright’s language is divisive. Barack Obama has called it divisive.”

    I find “divisive” a subtler, calmer and more accurate description than your earlier “racism is racism and I believe it should be condemned.” The point of my rather pompous question was to find a way to mitigate that former, blunter formulation.

    As an atheist to a Christian, allow me to wish you the blessings of the season in the hope of understanding, tolerance, reconciliation — and life renewed.

    Cheers — Andrew

  • Jay, I’m not saying that people who liked it did so because it’s popular. I am saying that not liking it is unpopular. Why, the wife if a good friend of mine threw a couch pillow at me over my opinion…..

  • Thanks very much, Andrew. Most appreciated.
    (But I’m not a heathen, too. I’ve left what is likely my last church. That — and likely its relationship to this discussion — is fodder for another post. But not until I get more of the book written!)

  • Cooler,
    Well said. And I”m glad to know more about you — for the sake of this discussion and in general.
    And I agree that the experiences are different, the worldviews are different, the burdens are different — as are many of the sources of pride and the joys. In my nostalgia for the melting pot, I don’t mean to try to erase or devalue those differences. But I still remain hopeful that we can bridge those differences — indeed, that is precisely what Obama promises to do. Yet I do not think it is possible when faced with Wright’s divisive language of hate. To say the least, it’s not helpful to the nation or, for that matter, to Obama.

  • I think at this point, anything that Obama says will be over-analyzed. Everyone is looking for any slip up in his speeches. If he were to blow smoke, as every other candidate does, I wouldn’t be voting for him. He stood up, told the race story as he knew it, and thats it. Complete honesty is what I am looking for in a candidate.

    If Obama gave a different speech there would still be criticism. If he was to blow smoke, everyone would complain about him being able to talk a good game with no action.

  • A Woody,
    Actually, I think it’s underanalyzed.

  • Jeff: Here’s a column you should read about Obama’s speech, and as someone who believes in free speech, you ought to appreciate it. I think you are dead wrong about the speech, and I am glad my wife threw a pillow at your head for it. That was inventive and expressive.

  • And fun. Just in time for New York’s official pillow fight day.

  • After running the gauntlet of the FT’s barbed wire, I finally managed to read the column. (To other readers who want to read Jay’s link, don’t click on it but go to, click on columnists, and read Caldwell’s on Obama’s speech.)

    “Wrong” is such a shallow, simplistic word. It’s a pillow thrown.

    “Wrong”? That’s the sort of one-dimensional language Caldwell himself dismisses, a kind of political incorrectness: “You are wrong, which makes me right.”

    I find Caldwell’s column a bit dizzying, for he blames careful speech, inoffensive speech, a dismissal of hate speech, political correctness — judge it as you will — on white people and praises Obama for defending Wright’s intemperate language — well, except the worst of it — as the antidote.

    Mind you, I am no fan of political correctness. I am, after all, a fan of Howard Stern’s; he’s my intemperate one. I agree with Caldwell that far: that we need to cut through the fog and have an honest and direct discussion.

    But Wright is no model of progressive tolerance, any more than is Falwell or Robertson.

    This story is about many things. It is about religion; that is another discussion. It is about company kept and advisers heard. It is about language, indeed. It is about racism. It is about history. It is also about views of Obama — his own and others’ — as the son of a black man or a white woman or as the multicultural American and the significance of each. It is about allegiances and loyalties and priorities. It is about rhetoric and meaning. It is about media coverage. It is about so much. “Wrong” doesn’t do the discussion justice.

  • Mind you, I am no fan of political correctness.

    Exactly. You are no fan of political correctness. And because you disagree with Obama’s decision not to leave his church–a totally legitimate disagreement– you are missing one of the most interesting things about his speech, which is that it’s the greatest blow to racial PC ever undertaken by an American politician.

    Obama said black Americans ought to be “binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” If that isn’t your politics, I don’t know what is, Jeff. (Which of course is possible.) The whole thrust of political correctness is the opposite way: never forget the particular grievances.

    The argument that Caldwell is making you did not grasp.

    He’s not saying PC speech is the fault of white people and Wright is the antidote to all that. He’s saying that the kind of paranoia represented by some of Wright’s more lurid suggestions has a connection to the “speaking in code” that settled over polite discourse, public discourse after it became difficult for whites to talk about racial differences without sounding racist. He’s saying PC speech isn’t believable to black Americans, either. They don’t believe it represents what white people really think. (Are they wrong?) But since that’s all they hear–PC plus code words that attempt to get around PC–they have to imagine what the real feelings are, beneath the gobbledygook. And that is part of the paranoia. Cause of? No. Excuse for? No again.

    Obama actually took this whole structure on and gave it a big shove. You should be cheering that. Caldwell:

    The US has not managed to eliminate racism, [yet] it has succeeded in eliminating racist talk. Remarks the slightest bit “insensitive” draw draconian punishment. White people, because they feel thoroughly oppressed by this regime, assume that it must be some kind of “gift” to minorities, especially blacks.

    It is not. It is more like a torment. It renders the power structure more opaque to blacks than it has ever been, leaving what Mr Jackson calls a “scary disconnect between the specifics of what gets said and the hazy possibilities of what kinds of things are truly meant”.

    The very dialog that has burst forth from Obama’s speech showed that it lessened some of the oppression of the linguistic regime we have been caught within. It’s hard for me to believe that your free speech self cannot see that.

  • Jay,
    I grasp Caldwell’s point. Don’t insult me, friend.
    All this comes full circle to my original point: It is an attempt to justify Wright’s hate-laced speech and it does that by making it a black thing I wouldn’t understand. But I do.

  • Huh? You lost me. I don’t see how you got there, and I don’t see that you have a correct paraphrase of what Caldwell said. You have an incorrect paraphrase. That Caldwell “praises Obama for defending Wright’s intemperate language — well, except the worst of it — as the antidote,” which is what you wrote, is not correct. That is not what he’s saying. He doesn’t think Wright’s intemperate language is the antidote to anything. He’s not praising Obama for defending Wright. He’s praising Obama for dealing racial PC a huge blow.

    Also, what’s up with the conflation of “explain” and “justify?” That’s shouting heads logic, that’s thirty-second ad stuff. Why do that?

  • Jay,
    You can’t separate the fact that Obama did that defending Wright. He’s “dealing racial PC a huge blow” by defending, justifying, explaining, embracing the thinking of a man who speaks this way.
    I’d say that “dead wrong” is more Foxspeak than “explain” or “justify,” wouldn’t you?
    I’d ask you to parse Obama’s political motives with your usual depth.

  • Nah, I am getting out of this one. Everything I say seems to insult you. That’s no good.

    Saying “you’re dead wrong” isn’t an argument, or an attempt at argument, Jeff. It’s just signaling to you how I feel. I don’t understand why that’s so insulting. I think you are wrong for supporting “old politics” Hillary, too. So what?

    I don’t have anything special to add parsing Obama’s speech, which is a political speech and therefore has many overlapping motives. But like many others I noticed that it isn’t your typical “distance yourself from…” speech, even though that’s part of what he is doing. What Alan Wolfe said at The Plank says it for me.

    I’m done with this subject, but you should do a post on whether the The Huffington Post actually is, as its tag line now says, “The Internet Newspaper.” ( “The Internet Newspaper: News, Blogs, Video, Community.”) See Romenesko today on it.

  • I think my reply got caught in your spam filter. If you put more than one link into a comment, it thinks you are spam. Cheers!

  • Rescued the comment.

  • Ah, and there’s the nut of it after all: We disagree about our votes.

    Re HuffPo: I’m not sure why anyone would want to be a newspaper. See David Carr’s column today.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, what if Obama’s political motives are simple? He went to church, he was close to the minister, he disagreed with some of what he said, he valued the man’s spiritual guidance in bringing the Obama’s closer to God.

    But when people heard the soundbites, they started attacking Obama. The attacks hurt his chance to win the nomination. So he felt he needed to explain his relationship to Wright. The explanation is complicated and steeped in the murky and opaque attitudes of minorities and whites. So he decided to give a speech and try to talk about it.

    He did. He gave a speech that shone a bright light into the dark cave of race relations, PC speech, suspicion and confusion about what people really think about each other. And he didn’t defend Wright’s words, but he did explain why he was close to the man.

    You can say, he should have never been close to the man because of the words the Wright spoke. But the explanation itself is so sharp, so accurate that you shouldn’t dismiss it. Obama’s speech is brilliant because it opened something that whites really don’t want to talk about it. And maybe blacks don’t either. I don’t know because I’m not black and I’m not privvy to conversations that take place about race in their community.

    I know, though, that in the place I used to live, outside a big Midwestern city in a blue state, the liberal white moms supported affirmative action, were pro-choice, etc. But when the school district wanted to change the lines to bring more minorities into the school, they fought hard. They used the code word of “class size” as the weapon, rather than saying out loud that they didn’t want a few poor, blacks to go to school with their kids.

    That’s what Obama is talking about.

  • Jeff — once again, I think you mischaracterize Obama’s speech. You say Obama is “defending, justifying, explaining, embracing the thinking of a man who speaks [the] way [Wright does].”

    Stringing together all those verbs is not illuminating. I would say he was…

    …“defending” his relationship with the preacher while criticizing Wright’s thinking and disavowing some of his sermons…

    …“justifying” his own membership of the Trinity United congregation in whose pulpit those words were spoken…

    …“explaining” the race-based bitterness of an historical mindset that could produce sermons that are now clearly anachronistic, divisive and counterproductive…

    …“embracing” Wright himself as one would embrace a member of one’s family, prejudices and all.

    The discourse of the African-American church, Obama explains “contains, in full, the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and –yes — the bitterness and biases that make up the black experience in America.”

    And Professor Rosen, I know you are “getting out of this one” but before you do, I quibble with your comment to Jarvis that his disagreement with Obama’s decision not to leave his church is “a totally legitimate disagreement.” As we have gone back and forth in BuzzMachine’s earlier thread Obama Explains, this disagreement comes disquietingly close to an unConstitutional religious test for political office and is therefore not legitimate in our secular republic.

  • kat

    As long as we condone and excuse these biases that make up the black experience in America, we will never make any progress. We would not condone such preaching in a white church and we should not condone it in a black church. Preacher number 2 is no better than Wright. How is Obama going to explain his latest comments–it’s a Black thing–you white folks wouldn’t understand. If Obama is a uniter and not a divider, he can’t just make a pretty speech while the hate mongering from the Black pulpit continues. You don’t bridge divisions with this kind of crap directed at the young minds of Blacks. This is divisive and teaches Blacks to think like the sick preacher, Wright. That is how mullahs indoctrinate their young to hate America. Their sermons are eerily similar to Wright’s.

  • I, for one, am loving the give and take in these comments. I hope neither Jeff nor Jay (nor, for that matter, Andrew, “Cooler Heads,” and the others) gives up on this type and style of discourse. Reading over the thread, I’m heartened to find genuine attempts at understanding and respectful if firm efforts at persuasion. Even though the parsing and parrying may be exhausting for the writers, and nerves seem to be fraying a bit, the readers are better off for making it down this far. Keep up the good work.