Barack Obama: Dividing (By Race) to Conquer?

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Jun 02, 2008 12:00 AM
Barack Obama: Dividing (By Race) to Conquer?

For someone whose campaign supposedly brought with it the promise of racial healing, Barack Obama has so far done little to effect any meaningful interracial understanding. His press conference yesterday, announcing his departure from Trinity United Church of Christ, is just the most recent indication that Obama’s status as a “great hope” for racial healing has been considerably overrated.

Neither explanation for some of his remarks yesterday is likely to burnish Obama’s credentials as a racial reconciliator. Either Barack Obama doesn’t understand what the Wright controversy was really about – or he understands all too well, and has decided that exacerbating racial tensions is preferable to voters believing he was a little too comfortable for two decades at a church where nasty racialist rhetoric emanated regularly from the pulpit.

After offering his statement about leaving Trinity, Obama engaged in the following exchange with a reporter:

Q: Senator Obama, do you think that it will be possible for you to join another black church or historically black church, or do you think that as a matter of sort of – do you think that political correctness is going to be an issue in this election and that’ll be a factor in the racial mix of the church that you join?

A: You know, it’s an interesting question. I mean, I do think that – and I said this earlier, that there is – there is a different religious tradition or a worshipping style in some of the historically African American churches and other churches. But you know, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to find a church that we feel comfortable with and that will reflect our concerns and our values. But I do think that there is – you know, there is a cultural and stylistic gap that has come into play in this issue.

Remarkably, his comments seem to attribute the brouhaha over his attendance at Trinity to the “stylistic and cultural gap” between black churches and the wider culture. What he means by this isn’t clear, but there only two logical conclusions one can draw from the remarks, and both are disturbing: Either Obama thinks that anyone who objected to his attendance at Trinity was a racist – or that his fellow congregants at Trinity (and members of other black churches) are.

To the extent that Obama is suggesting that dislike of the “worshipping style in some of the historically African American churches” created the firestorm surrounding his attendance at Trinity, he’s insinuating that those who took exception to Wright’s remarks were actually closeted bigots. In this formulation, it wasn’t the substance of the preaching but rather the “worshipping style” in which it was delivered – along with the exuberant, participatory response – that engendered the outcry. If Obama doesn’t understand that Wright’s calls for God to damn this country and other similar remarks are what created the controversy – not black preacher cadences and “call and response worship” – then his radical sympathies are so ingrained that he’s irretrievably out of step with mainstream American thought.

On the other hand, if he’s suggesting that the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that has apparently generated applause at Trinity is typical of the black church in America – just part of the “different religious tradition . . . in some of the historically African American churches” – then he has perpetrated a grievous slander against the black community he has claimed as his own. Calls for the damnation of the United States and the use of painfully divisive racialist language aren’t, in fact, typical of America’s black churches – most of which are centered on love of God, family, neighbor and country. If his comments were an attempt to justify his own membership at Trinity by asserting that its inflammatory, anti-American rhetoric represents the norm, Americans who don’t attend black churches need to know that’s simply not true – and black Americans deserve better from the candidate in whom they have taken such pride.

There’s no doubt that Barack Obama’s candidacy carries with it the aspirations of countless Americans for better interracial relationships. If he’s going to live up to even a scintilla of the hopes that have been reposed in him, he needs to start by making it clear that he understands that divisive racial rhetoric is always inexcusable – no matter from whose lips (or whose pulpit, or in what style) it’s issuing.