March 18th, 2008
04:36 PM ET

Healing the Wounds of Race

Editor's note: Jim Wallis is a guest on 360° tonight.  He originally posted the following blog on sojo.net

It has simmered throughout this campaign, and now race has exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race.  Just when a black political leader is calling us all to a new level of responsibility, hope, and unity, the old and divisive rhetoric of race from both blacks and whites is rearing its ugly head to bring down the best chance we have had for years of finally moving forward.

And that is indeed the real issue here.  A black man is closer to possibly becoming president than ever before in U.S. history.  And this black man is not even running as "a black man," but as a new kind of political leader who believes the country is ready for a new kind of politics.  But a new kind of politics and a new face for political leadership is deeply threatening to all the forces that represent the old kind of politics in the U.S.  And all the rising focus on race in this election campaign has one purpose and one purpose alone—to stop Barack Obama from becoming president of the United States.

Barack Obama should win or lose his party's nomination or the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country and the U.S.'s role in the world.  He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in the U.S.  That would be a tragedy for all of us.

The cable news stations and talk radio are playing carefully selected excerpts of the most potentially incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery sermons.  Wright is the retiring pastor of Barack Obama and his family's home Trinity Church in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city and around the nation, has condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor.  But the whole controversy points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in the U.S. and the experience of many white Americans.  And that is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.

Here is what I mean.

There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African-American community. And those feelings are borne of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted.  African-Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen.  But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of black frustration and anger is to be in a state of white denial – which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.

The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience in their own country.  Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are ever told.  And, black preachers have had the pastoral task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations.  The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country.

But if you look beyond the grainy black-and-white clips of the dashiki-clad Rev. Wright and the angry black male voice (all designed to provoke stereotypes and fear,) and actually listen to what his words are saying about the U.S. being run by "rich white people" while blacks have cabs speeding by them, and about the U.S.'s misdeeds around the world, it's hard to disagree with many of the facts presented.  It's rather the angry tone of Wright's comments that provides the offense and the controversy.

Ironically, a new generation of black Americans is now eager and ready to move beyond the frustration and anger to a new experience of opportunity and hope.  And nobody represents that shift more than Barack Obama.  There is a generational shift occurring within the black community itself.  This shift is between an older generation that is sometimes perceived to be stuck in the politics of victimization and grievance, and a younger generation that believes that opportunity and progress are now possible—not by ignoring, but by being committed to actually changing the facts of oppression and discrimination.

Barack Obama represents that hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope, and even the possibility of racial unity.  Obama's attraction to many who are white, especially a new generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in the U.S.  But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Barack Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African-American community, and God's promise for the future are all clearly articulated.  That's why he began attending Trinity Church, where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

So it would be a great tragedy if the old rhetoric of black frustration and anger were to now hurt Barack Obama, who has become the best hope of beginning to heal that very frustration and anger.  Obama has never chosen to talk about race in the way that Rev. Jeremiah Wright does on the video clips that keep playing, and indeed has never played "the race card" at any time in this election.  It's been his opponents that have, especially the right-wing conservative media machine that wants the U.S. to believe he is secretly a Muslim and from a "racist" church.

This most recent controversy over race just demonstrates how enormous the gap still is between whites and blacks in the U.S. – in our experience and our capacity to understand one another.  May God help us to heal that divide and truly bless America.

– Jim Wallis, Author The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post–Religious Right America

soundoff (152 Responses)
  1. Marie

    I really am angered about the words of Rev. Wright. I have also been angered about a local African-American columnist who spewed forth an anti-Hillary column. In this column, this columnist wrote that Hillary reminded her of all the white women who had held the proverbial door for each other, but slammed it shut on black women. Well, I see alot of hate against white people in this campaign. Do black people look at me with hatred because I look like Hillary? Well, they don't know that every one of my ancestors who were of age, fought in the civil war to end slavery. My one great-grandfather was wounded, and walked with a cane the rest of his life. I never realized there was so much hatred boiling out there, until Obama. Maybe it's time he left the race!! I dare you, CNN, to print this, as you never print my responses!!

    March 19, 2008 at 12:20 am |
  2. Susan Lingerfelt

    As a Tennessean, I hear racist comments about Barack Obama all the time. As an Obama supporter, I find myself being teased about it.

    My fear is that this important leader, who brings a unique opportunity to our country for real communication about all issues that are so important to us as a country at this time, will be pushed aside out of fear. Obama has a rare gift, one we have not seen in a very long time, the gift is real and the speech today is an example of that gift. He can speak to America as adults, with compassion and intelligence. He will be one of the great Presidents, if he is given the chance.

    When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, I felt this way about him. He delivered. Hillary would be an okay President but she doesn't have what Bill has or what Obama has, call it the "it" factor. Hillary can never bring the country to a rallying cry for an issue to be passed, Obama can.

    When he speaks with the people of this country, we want to listen. Most of us can hear the truth and know that he feels what he says. Some are hardened and will never hear anything other than their own words reverberating in their minds. Barack Obama will never win over those who have hate in their hearts, but those of us who have opened our minds and our hearts and listened to his beliefs, and his desires for the country will stand up proudly and vote for him and we as a country will be better for it!

    March 19, 2008 at 12:14 am |
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