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Obama, Wright and The Moral Obtuseness of Conservatives

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I am not a big fan of Barack Obama.

Yes, I am African American. But since I tend to be center-right and he is more center-left, I don’t tend to agree with him.

That said, it would be foolish for me not to listen to what he has to say, especially on a subject that both he and I have dealt with: race.

In the aftermath of Obama’s speech in response to news accounts of sermons given by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, I am fascinated by how some conservatives have responded to his speech. What they have said says more about the current state of the GOP and conservatism in regards to race than it does about Obama and Rev. Wright.

Many conservatives have chosen to see this in purely political terms, castigating Obama for offering liberal bromides on race or for not totally disowning Rev. Wright. In many cases, they have completely ignored the larger issue of race.

Jonah Goldberg offered a pretty good criticism of the speech. However, that all he has is criticism:

Obama says that pretty much any inconvenient discussion of race is a distraction from what America really needs: a huge expansion of the welfare state. Obama says our racial problems can be healed by “investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.” The path for blacks, Obama insists, requires “binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans – the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”

Meanwhile, the “real culprits” for our problems are: “a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

Sigh. Here we go again.

For all the tantalizing promise of Obama, there’s not much that is actually new here. This was largely a restatement of Jeremiah Wright’s indictment of America, delivered in University of Chicago parlance instead of South Side Chicago diatribe.

So, there is whining that is a rehash of old liberalism. Okay, I totally agree that Obama is a liberal, which is why I am not taken with him. But then let me ask Goldberg and others like him this: what is the conservative answer to racial issues? Do you all have an urban agenda that will help poor young blacks, who don’t see a way out of their destructive lives, huh?

Michael Medved is concerned that Obama’s church is a race-hating church:

For many years, the next paragraph (recently removed due to the Wright controversy) appeared on the website and shamelessly explained explained: “Trinity United Church of Christ adopted the Black Value System….We believe in the following twelve precepts and covenantal statements. These Black Ethics must be taught and exemplified in homes, churches, nurseries and schools, wherever Blacks are gathered.” Those “precepts and covenantal statements” include, “Commitment to the Black Community” (Number 2), “Disavowal of the Pursuit of ‘Middleclassness’” (Number 8), “Pledge allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System (Number 11) and “Personal Commitment to embracement of the Black Value System.” (Number 12).

A simple thought experiment can clarify the questionable nature of the ideology of Jeremiah Wright’s church. Try replacing the word “black” in the material above with the word “white,” and you’d see a perfect definition of the spiritual approach of the “Aryan Nations” or “Christian Identity Movement” or other neo-Nazi fringe groups.

Could the American people truly accept a President who chose long-term affiliation with an organization that says that “Black Ethics…must be taught” and requires “Personal Commitment to embracement of the Black Value System” — not the American Value System, or the Universal Value System, or, pointedly, even the Christian Value System.

Obama’s church publicly and unapologetically promoted a “Value System” based on racial identity, not common heritage or American patriotism

Now I haven’t been to Trinity and in all honesty, Trinity probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea. But that said, having grown up in the black church, I know a thing or two about this, something Mr. Medved doesn’t apparently know anything about. The black church has long been a place where blacks could feel good about themselves in a society that didn’t allow them to feel good about being black. As a kid, I remember our church singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Black History Month. We would have services where we would remember important events in African American History. While Trinity goes overboard in my opinion, it is part of a tradition of having people feel good about being black. That isn’t the sign of a racist church. A very liberal church, yes, but not a racist one.

But Medved gets to the problems conservatives have:

Here’s the deal, he seemed to say: if you elect me, we can at last put an end to all the lectures and breast-beating about our brutal racist history. When I stand on the steps of the Capitol building and take the oath of office as your president, that very act will put an end- forever- to the idea of African-Americans as second-class citizens. Rather than endless recriminations and accusations, we’ll all stand together as equals in the eyes of God and the U.S. Constitution.

Millions of Americans – including some conservatives who should have known better- rushed to take that deal, and embraced Obama’s candidacy.

But now, at a decisive point in the race, the candidate has abruptly changed the bargain.

Rather than promising less race consciousness, he now insists we need more. Instead of bidding to lead a post-racial– or at least a post-racist—America, Obama’s speech tells us we must go back to picking at the old scab.

Actually, Barack was right the first time: putting race aside, affirming our common Americanism and humanity, can serve to heal old divides. Obsessing on racial divisions, focusing on “blackness” or “whiteness,” perpetuating the eternal cycle of grudge and guilt, only intensifies the fever associated with the nation’s most menacing disease.

So, obviously the way to deal with race is to just not talk about it.

Oh yeah, that’s worked SO well.

I will agree with Medved that liberals sometimes obsess over race. I also think that at times they are too dark, forgetting all the progress that has taken place and not looking with hope that we are not where we once were. But if liberals are too obessessed with race, then conservatives are ignorant. Medved wants to pretend that we can just put aside our race and just get along without realizing the effects of racism on African Americans and the resentment of whites in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.

In some ways, I think this sums up what I think is a problem with conservatives in general and the GOP in particular: not being able to say anything on race. I don’t believe that my fellow Republicans are racists; it’s just that they don’t seem to get it. In some ways, if liberals can’t see how far America has come, conservatives want to believe race and racism just don’t exist, it’s all just something in the distant past.

While some of it is in the distant past, it’s also in the very present.

Take for example Rev. Wright’s assertions that the government gives black people drugs or created AIDS. Yes, that sounds outlandish, and it is. But I also know that growing up, I heard black folk talking about how the government brought drugs into the black community. I would roll my eyes when I heard this from my relatives and I still would do so. However, there is reason people would believe in such conspiracy theories, and it can be summed up in one word: Tuskegee.

African Americans know about the infamous “Tuskegee Experiments” where black men were denied treatment for syphillis in a clincal study. Even though the events happened nearly a century ago, people still think about it. A mainly white establishment with held treatment from poor, illiterate black men. It sounds far fetched, but it’s true and has haunted black America.

But do white conservatives know about this? If they did, maybe they would understand some of Rev. Wright’s nuttiness. But no, they haven’t and because of this they have nothing to say.

Of course, not all conservatives are like this. Jack Kemp and Mike Huckabee have spoken out on race to their credit. I know of many conservatives who care alot about racial reconciliation.

But it’s the big names that need to start talking. If they don’t like Obama talking about big government programs as a solution, then express this is in conservative ways. Surely there have to be conservative solutions other than sticking your heads in the sand.

The GOP is shrinking. This should be a time for looking outward and being open to all-actively seeking out African Americans and listening to their stories.

It would be better than what is going on now with conservatives which is nothing. Which is quite sad.