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What I Intuit the Reverend Wright Business Is Fundamentally About

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Not surprisingly, the Reverend Wright thing has not gone away, just because Obama delivered a great speech.  It continues to reverberate at least in some chambers.

Some of that is because it serves important political powers purposes to keep this alive.  But it is also the case that the reason it is useful is that there's something here that resonates for Americans.  Here are my thoughts about what that "something" may be.

Reverend Wright in these videos comes across as an angry black man.  There is a big part of America that is profoundly threatened by the image of an angry black man.  Obama comes across as something very different.   That's vital to his appeal, and to his ability to build a powerful political movement.  So anyone who wants to scare Americans off from joining that movement can find it useful to tie him as closely as possible to that image of the angry black man in the You-tube videos.

Here again, methinks, we encounter that old matter of cultural patterns and their power.  In "The Concept of Evil," I talked about the Jim Crow pattern that Karl Rove took off the shelf:  

<blockquote>In the Jim Crow South, and now again in Karl Rove’s America, the leaders inflame passions around peripheral issues to distract their supporters from what the leaders are really doing with their power. A century ago, the hot-button distraction was racial purity. Now, the leaders whip people up about issues of moral purity.</blockquote>

That the "angry black man" image is threatening can be inferred by how much energy the South has always given to creating the myth that the slaves were well-treated, and that they were pretty happy with their lives ("always singing and dancing").  I know from personal experience in the South that this belief endures still.  And I expect that the need to believe that blacks were happy and appreciative of a white power system that exploited them seeped out into the wider American culture.  And so there are a great many Americans who have absorbed the pattern according to which peace of mind is antithetical to the admission that blacks are deeply resentful of what they've suffered as the objects of American racism.

That, I think, is the deepest level of fear that the Reverend Wright affair triggers in some people.  (That plus the more recent historical experience of what happened in America, in the wake of the civil rights revolution, when the reassuring posturings of Stepin Fetchit were abandoned and "black rage" came to the surface.)

That old pattern, born of guilt and trauma, is why a great many Americans can't --or won't--hear that Obama is not coming to white America in a spirit of anger.  

Or perhaps, even if Obama's true spirit is acknowledged, for many it may simply be unacceptable to those people that Obama could have an important relationship with an angry black man --that too frightening image-- even if Obama rejects some of his angry views.

This may be one of the openings by which the pattern of American racism --and beyond that, of American traumatic brokenness around the issue of race-- is able to do its usual work of serving evil.  

Obama will have to continue trying to show Americans an unthreatening way of looking at race relations --as he began to do in that famous speech-- and my hope is that there will be enough Americans who are prepared to welcome the approach of includion and bridge-building and compassion and non-blame.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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