Wednesday, March 26, 2008

And Now Some of the Harder Stuff

Before really attempting to wrap my mind around the real issues underneath the Obama/Wright connection, I decided to take a little trip around the blogosphere to get a feel for what those issues might be. I've even watched a little FoxNews, because there was bound to be some mention of it on there, right? Little did I know that I would still need to do my own discernment regarding what was important and what was white discomfort, as well as that up until recently FoxNews has pretty well been running 24/7 "analysis" of the Obama/Wright stuff.

I ran across one blog taking issue with a comment that Obama had made in response to a question about his white grandmother. Obama offered this:
"The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity," Obama said on WIP. "She doesn't. But she is a typical white person who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, there's a reaction that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away, and that sometimes comes out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society."

People have zeroed in on the "typical white person" phrase with indignation, offering up the typical questions concerning how this would sound if "black" had been used in place of "white," and so on. Reactions against it have ranged from accusing him of harboring his own latent racism to justifying a "typical white person's" fear of black people.

Oh yeah. You read that right:

So the suggestion here is that “typical white people” who may be wonderful in many ways, nevertheless have an unfortunate view of blacks which has in some way been foisted upon them contrary to reality. Here’s the problem with that.

Black people commit a great deal more violent street crime per capita than white people.

Not a slight difference, but a large and statistically significant margin. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2004 black males aged 14-24 were 1.2% of the population yet committed 26.1% of the murders in the US. If that figure were attributed to redheads or left-handed people, you bet there’d be a different assessment of those individuals walking down the street.

Does anyone else see a problem with not only an admittance of "typical white people's" fear, but justification of it? How does that move us forward, or prove that racism is less of a problem today than in the past?

(Obama originally used the example of his white grandmother's fear to talk about how he could still love both her and Wright despite some of their views and without disowning he was put in a position to offer the above answer is beyond me, but it was unfortunate.)

Anyway, let's move on to some of Wright's sermons that have been played, replayed, dissected, and played again. The short of it is this: yeah, some of it is crazy. AIDS being created for black genocide, America pumping drugs into the black community, his little Clinton "riding dirty" pantomime, "US of KKK A"...there's no way I'm defending that stuff.

Let's talk about his claim that 9/11 was "deserved." That's what people say he said, right? Here's that sermon in context. Go ahead and give it a listen.

Back? Okay, let's run down the list here:
~He's quoting Ambassador Edward Peck...all the cited violence in which America participated was said by someone else.
~He quoted Peck in order to make a point about America being caught in a cycle of violence along with the rest of the world.
~He prefaced this quote by talking about Psalm 137, where the writer dreams of revenge against enemies. After the quote, he talks about breaking that cycle of violence when formulating a response to the WTC attacks.

I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a pretty good sermon. It wasn't about America deserving anything. It was about America being caught in a cycle of violence, our perpetration of violence elsewhere, and occasionally expecting to deal with it on our own soil so long as we're a part of it.

But the main charge against Wright in particular and against Obama by proxy is a hatred for white people. Wright preaches in one clip that Hillary has never had a cab zoom past her because of her race, and accuses her of being part of the Rich White Establishment. Of course, she is a woman and has probably had to deal with different forms of discrimination, but let's move that aside for now. These types of suggestions by Wright have made white America uncomfortable. Some of us have cried "reverse racism" because of it. Some of us have claimed that we're over that stuff now, that things are in a much better place. Just this morning I read an article suggesting that Obama and Hillary are proof that we no longer need Affirmative Action.

Really? We're in a better place? You really think so? When articles like the one I cite below tries to pigeonhole churches by race and suggests that Trinity isn't really a part of the "black tradition?" When blogs like the one above justifies white fear by citing the prevalence of crimes perpetrated by black people? When some are still trying to pass off the lie that a black presidential candidate with an Arab middle name is secretly a Muslim terrorist? When I'm regularly in company with people who talk about how wonderful this or that neighborhood used to be until "the blacks" or "the Mexicans" moved in? You really believe that we're in a better place today, and that Wright's anger and Obama's speech from last week are no longer necessary?

Here's my answer: no.

Look...people keep talking about a "national conversation on race" that needs to happen. I'll be the first to stand up and admit that I have no freaking clue how the hell something like that is even possible. It's a nice phrase that I believe is completely impractical. What, we'll have like this massive conference call or something? Please. I do agree, however, that as a country we have a long way to go in confronting and healing racial tensions.

Does each racial community have some issues to work out for itself? I'd say yes.

Does each racial community harbor anger, resentment, prejudice and fear toward other races (in a word, racism)? Yes. And not just the blatant kind, either, as has been illustrated in this post and the one below.

Are Wright's hands clean? Or Obama's? Or mine? Or yours? No. Or maybe you've worked this out for yourself. Congratulations.

The rest of us, meanwhile, should probably stop pretending that racism is a nominal issue in 2008.


Anonymous said...

Look...people keep talking about a "national conversation on race" that needs to happen. I'll be the first to stand up and admit that I have no freaking clue how the hell something like that is even possible.

I look at the US and wonder how any conversation is supposed to happen about anything. Everything's so polarized. That's by no means to say all individual Americans think that way (I'm not anti-American), but in the public square - politics, media, religion - everything seems so partisan, stacked against the possibility of ever having a real, honest conversation about anything that matters.

Jeff Nelson said...

Agreed, Dave. I'm getting to the point where the partisanship in this election is starting to turn me against the whole thing.

Glad to see that you still poke around here, BTW.

Diane M. Roth said...

this is an absolutely wonderful post. I'm too tired right now to be articulate about it, but I do think that Rev. Wright has been railroaded. He is provocative, that's for sure, but most of us are too timid! There are things in the Bible that would offend us if we REALLY read them.

Anonymous said...


I think we probably have a lot in common, so I thought I'd just point out that your use of one excerpt from my post was a bit out of context.

I was keying off Obama's statement that a certain view of blacks had been "bred into our experience." As I said in my post, something is either inbred or experience not both.

It seemed to me that Obama was returning to the old stereotype of whites as terrified by the media into fear of every black person walking down the street. I argued that this is not prejudice of the Jim Crow variety but a somewhat rational reaction to the what is actually happening.

You asked how this was supposed to help "move things forward." As I suggested, I don't think we can have a "discussion about race" without discussing the fact that some cultures are digging a deep hole for people.

In my view, admitting the problem is usually the first step to finding a cure. In the 1960s, many white Americans had a problem with racism. Great men like ML King, forced them to admit that problem and deal with it.

Today, as I see it, the situation won't improve further until there is some honest recognition that the most serious problems black Americans face are not those created by white racism, but those created by an unhealthy black culture. A few brave individuals like Bill Cosby have said as much. I felt Obama came no where near doing so and, therefore, came no where near an honest "discussion of race" in America.

Rev SS said...

I agree with Diane ... wonderful post. Racism is so not a nominal issue in '08 ... best I can tell, in many ways we've moved backwards.

Law+Gospel said...

Found your blog through RevGals, and thanks for this post and the video link.In a country where even now people can be described as "pretty, intelligent, clean cut or friendly- for a black man" and where you see people reach to protect their purse in the elevator when a non-white gets on; racism is alive. We can all say " let's just get along," but isn't this just a " why can't you be like us?" "Know your place." You are right about the crime statistics, but as someone who was a lawyer before going to seminary I can also tell you that there is a leap to assume guilt among certain people in certain neighborhoods, and you know the old "they all look the same" still exists. Racism, like all of the other ills of society, is a function of the effect of sin upon humanity. None of us are exempt- all of us have work to do, and all of us will stumble and fall. In spite of some incendiary comments, there is much about Wright's remarks that fits with being a "jeremiah" and speaks truth we would rather not hear.

Jeff Nelson said...

Hi John. Thanks for commenting.

I think it's the "somewhat rational reaction" part that I'm questioning. Whether it's the media or the statistical ratio or both, a white person becoming nervous whenever a black person approaches him/her on the street is irrational. If black people commit 26.1% of crimes per capita, then white people are overreacting to the color of someone's skin 74% of the time.

I'd imagine that most people don't actually know that stat. Perhaps more know media coverage. On the street, all they have to go on is skin color. White people still have a problem to deal with if we're bunching up every time a black person approaches.

I think I see what you're saying about the difference between something being bred vs. something being experienced. I'm not sure that they can be easily separated, though. A white person can, for instance, read a statistic like the above, or see so many black crimes happen on the news, or even become a victim of a crime at the hands of a black person him or herself. So that's experience. If the white person then takes all of that to mean that all black people commit crimes and begins repeating that enough to his children, for example, then it starts to become bred. And the cycle continues.

It may have been poor wording, but from a certain point of view it works, I guess.

None of that is to deny the problems that each racial community faces on its own, of course. But when other racial communities take to always reacting with fear or suspicion, then we still all have a lot left to deal with.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response.

I agree with you that most people don't know that stat. Most people couldn't do the arithmetic necessary to plot the course of a pop fly either, but if you hand them a glove they could still catch one.

But speaking of those stats, the one I used was for murder, not all crime. When it comes to murder 1.2% of the population commits 26.1% of the crimes. You responded that 3/4 of the time it would still be wrong to worry.

I see the point you're making but, if this were a pop fly, you would have missed it. Sticking with 2004, white males age 14-24 are 6.3% of the population and commit 17.7% of the murders. My math is a little rusty, but I believe this means that black males in this age group are something like eight times more likely to commit murder than similar aged whites.

Again, my point is not to condemn a race of people. On the contrary, I think it's no accident that the demographic we're talking about is the one most engaged in a destructive culture. Culture is the problem, not race.

Nevertheless, it is not irrational for people to discriminate under these circumstances. If a young black man is nearly ten times as likely to commit murder as a young white man, there is reason for concern.

It's still unfortunate of course and no doubt will lead to people "bunching up" when it is not appropriate and possibly hurting feelings. I wish it never happened, because I can imagine the hurt it would cause me in similar circumstances. I'd be angry, frankly.

In my opinion, if the crime rates were to drop to something closer to equivalence and the culture wasn't saturated with the hip-hop nation lifestyle, those incidents would become far less common. To demand that people change their behavior when the stats are what they are is like asking people to stand in right field when the ball was clearly hit to center. I don't see how that's progress.

Anonymous said...

This BJS page actually does the math for me. It says "In 2005, offending rates for blacks were more than 7 times higher than the rates for whites." The actual multiplier for 2005 would seem to be 7.57.

Jeff Nelson said...

I agree that culture--more specifically, a culture within a culture--greatly nurtures criminal attitudes, not race.

You wrote, "Most people couldn't do the arithmetic necessary to plot the course of a pop fly either, but if you hand them a glove they could still catch one." In other words, if I'm reading this analogy correctly, people don't need the stat, they just know to be wary of all young black men when passing them on the street. That's what it sounds like you're trying to get at with this, and if not please clarify. If that is the case, however, then again all people have on which to base their judgment is skin color.

When you use the analogy again later on, I'd respond that it seems we're being encouraged to stand in center at all costs just in case, but then when the ball lands limply in right, then we can relax at least this one time. And 74% of the time, that ball is landing in right.

I'll agree that changing behavior and attitudes is extremely difficult. And I'll even own up to my own "bunching up" even when the rational part of me knows that there's no danger. I don't think that becoming defensive in response to a young black man's mere presence is necessarily any more a sign of progress than trying to get people to forcibly or artificially give up their fear and prejudice.

Something needs to happen at a deeper level within society for us to give up our suspicion of one another, especially suspicion based on race. I can't bring myself to call that anything other than racism, and again, I freely admit that I struggle with it as much as anyone else.

There's actually a song out there somewhere called "We're All A Little Bit Racist." I think the point was just to get people to think about it and acknowledge it for themselves. I'll have to see if I can track that down...

Anonymous said...


Actually my point was, people don't need to know the stat to have a sense of the way things are, i.e. which way the ball is heading.

I appreciate your acknowledgment that all people have, at least, the potential to favor others who look like them. A friend of mine, who is black, once told me that to him all white people looked pretty much alike. So yes, I think it's normal, but I don't think that in itself is racist or a threat to a just society.

As I see it, your honest admission is not going to solve the problem you admit is real in your first paragraph. I don't see much genuine racism in people under 40. Things have changed. Not completely, but significantly.

So if we're going to talk about race, let's talk about the real reasons black people can't get a cab in the city late at night. White racsim is not the problem (especially since many of the cabbies are also not white).

A self-defeating culture is at the core of most of these problems, not racist attitudes. At some point we need to stop blaming ourselves and lay responsibility on the individuals who are promoting that culture for their own gain.

Black culture (or culture within a culture) needs to be better. It can be better. We should all, as Americans who have an interest in our common good and the good of black people in particular, stop giving it a pass and expect that it be better.

If I were to speak in racial, and not cultural terms, I would say that black people are possibly the most beautiful people (both physically and spiritually) on the planet. In my view that beauty is being marred by a culture of violence and misogyny that is a reason for all of us to feel ashamed. I hate to see it.

Thanks for engaging in a hot topic like this and for letting me throw out a few fly balls on your site.

Jeff Nelson said...

Not all racism is the overt, easy-to-spot kind. I see your point about your black friend. And I worry that I've overstated my own issues. Maybe it can be called something else. But whatever it is, it's still a problem.

Anyway, I'm glad you stopped by. This has been helpful.