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Dispatches: Across the Great Divide
With U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, of Illinois, seeking to break the color line and become the first black man to win the nomination of a major party in the nation's history and the tortured history of race in America, it couldn't have been any other way.
Race, however, has not been the campaign's central theme. There have been some skirmishes over comments made by former President Bill Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, both associated with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign, but nothing strong as to force it to center stage.
That changed this week with the firestorm surrounding comments made in past sermons by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago who has been Sen. Obama's spiritual advisor.
Video of two sermons from 2001 and 2003 have been in regular rotation on cable news over the last week, with critics questioning Sen. Obama's connection to the Rev. Wright and his unwillingness to break with the pastor.
The comments - fiery denunciations of America, its foreign policy and its treatment of blacks - were shocking and threatened to derail Sen. Obama's campaign, with many calling for the Illinois senator to make a very public break with the Rev. Wright. Sen. Obama chose a different tack, denouncing the Rev. Wright's comments but not the man as part of an eloquent and honest speech about the racial stain that still divides this country 143 years after slavery was abolished, 44 years after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act finally ended legal segregation and nearly 40 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Sen. Obama's ostensible theme was the way in which race divides us - how the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow remain with us. While legal segregation may be gone, he said, its equally pernicious offspring, segregation based on economics and housing patterns, remains and continues to consign far too many blacks and Hispanics to "the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities."
The speech, as Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch wrote Tuesday on his Attytood blog, offered a "a dose of what the other candidates have only promised - straight talk, on America's most difficult subject." Sen. Obama "found a new and clearer voice, a way to talk about - and not to deny - that alienation, anger and pessimism but also to talk about why he believes that his generation - and specifically Barack Obama - will be the American to finally erase much of that anger, by channeling it into positive energy."
Ultimately, the Wright controversy says more about us as a nation and society, about our divisions and our inability to rise about the troubling parts of our past than it says about the candidate himself.
The pastor's sermons are a textbook example of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." He turns real grievances into conspiracy, resorting to "apocalyptic terms" and the kind of distorted rationalizing exhibited by conservative Christian ministers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks.
"The government gives (black youth) the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America,'" he railed during a 2003 sermon. "No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
The language, of course, is strident and conspiratorial, bordering on the intolerant - and yet it contains more than a kernel of truth about American society. The United States too often acts as if its concerns are the only ones that matter around the world, most recently in Iraq, but also in Central America, Iran, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, sowing resentment that was bound to explode at some point.
And the history of blacks in the United States has not been a good one and continues to be marred by injustice and economic disparities. Some of what is happening may be the fault of some in the black community, but the despair that exists in the inner city creates an atmosphere ripe for drugs and the growth of gangs and the government - read the white power structure - has done very little to address this. That these conditions continue to exist, that the resentment continues to bubble up and boil over in the kind of inflammatory rhetoric used by people like the Rev. Wright should be a warning. And while we should condemn the Rev. Wright for his vitriol, we should not use his paranoid style as an excuse to sweep the substance of what he is saying under the rug.
Sen. Obama's speech Tuesday acknowledged this, even as it attempted to create political - though not personal - distance between himself and the Rev. Wright.
"The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society," Sen. Obama said. "It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old - is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know - what we have seen - is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
Hank Kalet is managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. His blog, Channel Surfing, can be found at www.kaletblog.com.