As the mostly glowing reaction to Barack Obama’s intelligent and humane speech on race fades into the background, we’re left with a number of broader questions. Does Jeremiah Wright represent a vibrant and vital tradition in American life? Does this tradition represent a danger to America’s civic health, or does it merit our attention and respect?
Some, including Chris Hayes of The Nation, believe that much of the hostile reaction to Wright’s sermon is rooted in racism. Perhaps there is something to this. One critic of the speech created an extraordinary YouTube video that remixes Wright’s sermons with public statements made by Barack and Michelle Obama with a visual pastiche of 1960s black militancy. Note, however, that the narrative thread of the video is about the rejection of patriotism. It centers on an oppositional sensibility embraced by some black intellectuals, Wright among them. Wright not-always-eloquently interrogates the moral foundations of American patriotism, arguing that an authentic Christian commitment runs counter to the reflexive assertion of American rightness.
Wright’s message becomes more potent still when considered in light of the particular circumstances of black Americans, and the women and men in his inner-city flock. Do they owe the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.” any allegiance? If you accept Wright’s reading of American history, dominated by a remorseless white elite dedicated to subjecting the poor of this nation and all nations, the answer is clearly no. Wright is a dissenter who damns capitalist, militarist, racist America in the same strident terms used by the radical abolitionists of the 19th century.
But just as the radical abolitionists gave rise to less-strident abolitionists like Abraham Lincoln, who championed “the better angels of our nature,” perhaps something good, healthy, and constructive can grow out of Wright’s brand of racialized rejectionism. By bridging the seemingly unbridgeable divide between black separatists and middle-class patriots, Obama is doing more than trying to “be all things to all people,” a common complaint — he is trying to deepen our democracy by drawing in those who are most skeptical and indeed contemptuous of its supposed promise.
So who will make the compromises necessary to close this yawning gap? As nice as it would be for all sides to make concessions, the truth is that it is the separatist minority of a minority that will have to make a leap of faith — they need to give the institutions they damn as irredeemably corrupt a second chance. For now, at least, Obama appears to be the only figure who can make that happen. As some voters have second thoughts about the candidate, this is worth keeping in mind.