Cherry-Picking Politics: Barack Obama & Jeremiah Wright

Wow. The craziness is flying over comments made by Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I’ve read reactions from people stronly opposed to Wright, and from people defending Wright (or at least giving some helpful context—Knightopia links to several more).

Some of what Wright says is clearly off the deep end (i.e., the government invented AIDS to wipe out people of color). But I think some of his comments are right on. Like the “God Damn America” comments:

“The government gives them the drugs [referring to the Iran-Contra Affair], builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people … God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” (Seattle Times)

The ABC News story left out the last sentence, which I think helps give some context. Wright is preaching prophetically, like the prophets of old, who spoke out against injustice. I love America and the freedoms we have, but it’s not anti-American to speak out against injustice committed by America. That’s patriotic. (I wish Obama would have made that point.)

And America has some injustice going on when there are more black men in prison than in college.

I think Obama’s response sums it up:

Obama said that if he knew Wright only through clips played on television and YouTube, he also would see a reason to distance himself from the minister. (CNN)

It’s kind of funny that much of the supposed controversy was raised in an April 30, 2007 New York Times article. But apparently we need out-of-context video clips, cherry-picked from a 40-year career to make real headlines.

I’ll say this much for Wright—I appreciate his frankness. In 1984 he took a trip to Libya with Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan to meet with Muammar al-Gaddafi. Critics jump on this bit of trivia (neglecting to mention that the peace mission resulted in the release of a capture U.S. pilot who was shot down over Lebanon), and Wright addressed it head on:

“When [Obama’s] enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit Colonel Gadaffi with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell,” Wright once said. (London Sunday Times)

[It’s also note-worthy that “the Anti-Defamation League says it has no evidence of any anti-Semitism by Wright” (New York Times).]

19 thoughts on “Cherry-Picking Politics: Barack Obama & Jeremiah Wright”

  1. I didn’t follow the uproar over Wright’s comments when they came out, but I have been following Obama’s speech on race (which he gave yesterday) very carefully. I found it to be quite eloquent and illuminating. Maybe I’ll take time to say more about it another time.

  2. I will respond to just a couple of things:
    1. Is it an “injustice” if more black men are criminals than are in college? No, no, no, I’m not saying that all black men are criminals, I’m sayiing “Why do people go to jail?” Unfortunate? Yes. Sad? Yes. Injustice? No. Unless every one of those black men were wrongly arrested by racist cops and wrongly convicted and sentenced by racist judges and juries. Which I seriously doubt.

    2. Ok, so the ADL has no evidence of anti-semitism on Mr. Wright’s part. Interesting bedfellows, then, paling around with Louis Farrakhan-a noted white-hater and Jew-hater. If I hear someone using racial slurs or engaging in blatant racist behavior, it’s time to stop associating with that person. Farrakhan’s beliefs would be funny if they weren’t true…

    3. Finally, what business did those two have visiting Libya in 1984?

  3. 1. The fact that such a disproportionate number of black men are in jail says something is wrong in America. It’s systemic racism. Turning a blind eye to that fact and not working to fix it is an injustice.

    2. And how much is Wright associating with Farrakhan? He went on a trip with him and Jesse Jackson more than 20 years ago (and see the note below about Wright not endorsing Farrakhan’s views) and there’s some random award that was given to Farrakhan.

    I think Barack Obama explained it well:

    “[Wright] does not have a close relationship with Louis Farrakhan. Louis Farrakhan is a resident of Chicago, and as a consequence he has been active in a range of community activities … An award was given to Farrakhan for his work on behalf of ex-offenders completely unrelated to his controversial statements. And I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community, and I said so. But I have never heard an anti-Semitic [remark] made inside of our church. I have never heard anything that would suggest anti-Semitism on part of the pastor.” (Washington Post campaign blog-interesting collection of quotes from a 45-minute conversation with Obama and 100 Jewish community leaders in Ohio)

    I’m not sure I’d consider these two instances in 20+ years to be “paling around” with Farrakhan. It’s a tenuous connection at best. Seems to me if you want to dislike Wright there are other, more well-founded reasons.

    3. Did you read what I wrote about Wright’s trip to Libya? He went with Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan to secure the release of a U.S. pilot who was shot down. Should they not have gone on that peace mission?

    And as the New York Times noted, “Mr. Wright said his visits implied no endorsement of their [Farrakhan’s and Muammar al-Gaddafi’s] views.”

  4. 1. When something unfair happens to someone and causes harm, that is an “injustice”.
    Last I checked, one makes a choice to go to prison. A crime is committed, the perpetrator goes through our defendent-biased system, is prosecuted and sentenced. A person chooses to commit a crime. Therefore, a person chooses to be imprisoned. I have a hard time believing that facing the consequences of one’s own choices is an “injustice”. It’s sad that more black men are in prison, but those individuals chose to be there.
    While I will not claim that racism does not exist, I refuse to believe that it’s “systemic”. Simply put, a disproportionate number of black men have chosen to commit crimes and have been convicted of them.
    If you found that every single black man in prison in America was actually guilty of committing a crime, would you still want to right that “injustice”?

    2. How much association with a known raving racist like Farrakhan would be acceptable then? Going on an international trip, THEN giving him an award? How about staying far away from the guy forever? Would you hang out with a KKK member for a day? What about twice?

    3. I read what you wrote, how they went to secure the release of an American pilot. That doesn’t make it right.
    Yes, exactly, “Mr. Wright said”. See above.

  5. Thanks for your comments. Definitely making me think too much. ;-) And I’m going to respond out of order, if that’s OK.

    2. I guess I don’t agree with your guilt by association argument in general here. Farrakhan and Wright aside, I don’t think it’s wrong to interact and in some ways associate with someone you disagree with, no matter the extent of that disagreement. I think you can condemn someone’s actions but still validate the person.

    And Rick, this probably comes down to my faith again, so I hope you don’t mind me going there. Jesus hung out with all sorts of disreputable people–soldiers of the Roman oppression, adulterers (who were stoned at the time), tax collectors (who earned their wage by collecting more than they needed to), etc. The Christian faith is all about grace and redemption for sin whether we’re talking about “mere” greed or horrible atrocities. And you can best communicate that by interacting with people (like Jesus did). That might mean having lunch with a KKK member. Doesn’t mean I’d go to a KKK rally or sign up for the newsletter, but I can still interact with a KKK guy and try to show him some love and grace and hopefully convince him to turn from his racist ways.

    I think you need to be careful about it and what message it sends (perhaps something Wright has failed at), but loving your neighbor (no matter how terrible they are) is a central part of my faith, and I think that conflicts with your ‘guilt by association’ argument (at least as I’m understanding it).

    3. What’s wrong with a peace mission to secure the release of a POW? I guess I’m not understanding how that’s a bad thing.

    1. I’m not saying black men in prison are innocent. Some might be, but that’s not my point.

    My point is why do so many black men choose to commit crimes? The numbers are incredibly disproportionate, so what’s the reason? I think it’s due to the systemic racism and generational poverty that leave many black men with few choices. Yes, they still made the wrong choice and are guilty, but the fact that they have few options is something that can be changed. The fact that racism exists in housing, employment and education and limits the choices of black men, making them more likely to commit a crime is an injustice (something unfair happened to them and it caused harm).

    I guess this issue is an important one for me, more than any of the others, because we’re about to adopt a black child. Certainly the child will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family, but they will face discrimination and racism. That child will have to live with the fact that more men of their skin color are in jail than in college. That sucks and it breaks my heart. I think it’s a continuing injustice in America.

  6. Sorry about making you think there.

    2. (New number 1?) There is a difference between having lunch with someone or showing him love and grace and working with him or giving him awards. By doing so, you are condoning his attitudes and behaviors, while I guess dining and speaking with him is a less-emphatic endorsement. Had Mr. Wright dined or met or politely shaken hands with Farrakhan, there wouldn’t be the uproar that there is. But, the two worked together, implying some level of common ground.

    3. Doesn’t the United States government have a procedure for negotiating to release prisoners of war? Does it really involve divisive, inflammatory preachers?

    1. So you’re telling me that black men commit crime because they don’t have a choice? What? Stealing is wrong. Assault is wrong. Murder is wrong. Dealing drugs is wrong. Tax evasion is wrong. So black men are backed into a corner by the so-called systemic racism and forced to steal, to beat, to kill, to sell drugs, not pay taxes, or commit any of the other crimes on the book? You’ve got to be kidding me.
    In fact, your whole point #1 smacks of racism. You seem to say that black people can’t help themselves from committing crimes because of their situations. So black men don’t have the same self control as white people??? And you are going to adopt a black child-one that “will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family”-what does that mean? Are you saying that you can provide a better life than a black family? What are you implying? That you are better because you are white? Because of the racism, wouldn’t your possible adopted son be more liable to have to commit crimes and wind up in jail?

    Why are you worried about black men in jail? Why don’t you worry about finding a way to reduce the number of criminals period? Why does it have to be racial?

  7. There is a lot going on here, but I’ll make just a couple observations about the most recent comments.

    Kevin said:
    “My point is why do so many black men choose to commit crimes? … Yes, they still made the wrong choice and are guilty, but the fact that they have few options is something that can be changed. The fact that racism exists in housing, employment and education and limits the choices of black men, making them more likely to commit a crime is an injustice (something unfair happened to them and it caused harm).”

    Then Rick said:
    “So you’re telling me that black men commit crime because they don’t have a choice? What? … So black men are backed into a corner by the so-called systemic racism and forced to steal, to beat, to kill, to sell drugs, not pay taxes, or commit any of the other crimes on the book? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

    Rick, I’m having trouble giving your comment here a charitable reading. You start by saying that Kevin says that when black men commit crimes they don’t make a choice, but Kevin explicitly states that they *do* make a choice. So I don’t understand why you think he denies that.

    The best I can figure, Rick, you seem to think that when Kevin says there is systemic racism, you think that this means that if a person does something bad, and there is systemic racism in society such that it is more likely that a person of a certain race is more likely to commit a crime, then it must follow that the person either didn’t choose to commit a crime or isn’t responsible for that crime. But Kevin went to pains to not excuse any individual for the actions they committed, so I see no reason why you should assume he thinks along these lines. Perhaps you’ve heard other people excuse criminal behavior for this reason, but nowhere do I see Kevin doing that. And there is no necessary connection. It is perfectly reasonable to think that there is systemic racism and hold a person of a disadvantaged race fully responsible for their actions. As far as I can tell, this is the sort of position Kevin was laying out.

    Rick goes on to say:
    “And you are going to adopt a black child-one that “will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family”-what does that mean? Are you saying that you can provide a better life than a black family? What are you implying? That you are better because you are white? Because of the racism, wouldn’t your possible adopted son be more liable to have to commit crimes and wind up in jail?”

    You don’t seem to be giving Kevin much credit here. Given the rather uncontroversial claim that a black child raised in a white family will have different experiences than a black child raised in a black family, why do you jump to the most vicious reading of that claim? Perhaps you only wanted to point out to Kevin that those words could be twisted into a racist sense so he might want to clarify. But it sounds more like you understand Kevin to be claiming all sorts of things (like that Kevin thinks he can raise children better than African-American parents) that go well beyond anything he actually said and run directly counter the spirit of his post. Perhaps you meant to ask for clarification, but the tone suggests accusation.

  8. First to the points Rick and I were discussing (and thinking is good, Rick, I’m just tired from thinking too much):

    2. Like I’ve said before, I don’t think Wright is a saint, but I don’t think these two encounters in his lifetime equate to endorsement of all that Farrakhan believes. I don’t agree with guilt by association.

    3. Sure the U.S. gov’t has a policy on releasing prisoners, but it apparently wasn’t working (I’m assuming that, like I said, I haven’t found much info on it). So do we just give up on the guy? Or should we try another method? Doesn’t seem wrong to me to try another approach.

    (and now to the more heated debate–everybody breathe, remember to be nice, OK here we go…) ;-)

    1. I think Tim clearly explained what I was saying. I never said black men in those situations have no choice (or that they have less self control than white people), they have fewer choices. It’s not like growing up in upper-middleclass white suburbia where you have nearly unlimited choices. And the fact that their choices are limited because of race, that’s a problem. Though it doesn’t justify making the wrong choice.

    And I am clearly not saying that I can raise a black child better than a black family. I said the child would have a different experience. Different, not better (there’s rarely a ‘better’ in adoption). That’s a basic fact from our adoption classes and the books we’re reading. A child adopted transracially will have it especially tough because they’re not fully accepted in the white culture or the black culture. They get it from both sides. They’re straddling the fence and it makes them outsiders. That’s going beyond the scope of this discussion, but that’s what I was getting at.

    Rick: “Why are you worried about black men in jail? Why don’t you worry about finding a way to reduce the number of criminals period? Why does it have to be racial?”

    Reducing the numbers of criminals in jail period would be great. But I’m making it a racial because the numbers show something is going on racially. Do you think a disproportionate number of black men in jail is just the way it is and we shouldn’t be worried about it?

    If any group is disproportionately singled out, it seems worth investigating to make sure it’s not an injustice against that group. In this case I think there’s clearly something racial at the root of society causing it. I don’t see any other explanation for it.

  9. I’m not sure if this is where you’re going Rick, but I think it’s helpful.

    A while back I talked about the challenges of transracial adoption, and I said that being colorblind doesn’t help. You can’t just ignore race and pretend it doesn’t matter. Instead of ignoring differences, we should celebrate them. We also need to be aware of the differences so we can deal with the accompanying challenges (and I think that goes far beyond race–religion, culture, etc.).

    That was challenging for me in our adoption classes, but I think it holds true. My child may be discriminated against, but not preparing them for that isn’t helping them. They need to be taught how to respond.

    Since being colorblind doesn’t help us solve racial issues, I think that’s why it applies to this discussion, because there is something racial going on: a disproportionate number of black men are in jail.

    Again, I don’t know if that’s where you’re going at all, but I find it helpful.

  10. 2. You should believe in guilt by association, because that’s how the world works. If someone I knew was an avowed racist, I’d take great pains to avoid him. There are several reasons for that: I don’t want to give him the endorsement of my approval, I don’t want others to think that I hang out with (and therefore likely think similarly) to him, and finally I find such thoughts offensive and I make an effort to avoid those things I find offensive.

    3. According to Wikipedia (and we all know how fallible that can be-but I bet the dates could be checked with daily newspaper reports), the airman was shot down in Lebanon about December 4, 1983 and was returned on January 4, 1984. Not very long, really (though don’t ask him that).

    What I am saying is that, while black men may have “limited choices”, they still make the choice to commit crime and then go to prison. “Fewer choices” doesn’t mean “no choices”. How is that an injustice? There is always right and wrong, good and bad, lawful and unlawful.

    The crime rate among black men may be higher due to factors surrounding historical systemic racism, but not to an existing systemic racism.

    TPY,
    In the light of Kevin’s prior paragraphs, I thought that the wording of that one was interesting. So, yes, I was looking for clarification.
    My specific question of word choice revolves around the following sentence:
    “Certainly the child will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family, but they will face discrimination and racism.”

    The “but” in there implies an opposite is coming in the next phrase. When that opposite is a negative like “they will face discrimination and racism”, the first phrase draws scrutiny for its implied positive message. That phrase is “Certainly the child will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family”. So, to me, it sounds like you are saying that the experiences of a black child not being raised by a black family are a positive thing. It’s a quick jump to say that you will give this child a better experience than a black family.

  11. finally I find such thoughts offensive and I make an effort to avoid those things I find offensive.

    And what about things that I find offensive? You say that you make every effort to avoid things that you find offensive so that you are not guilty of those thing by association, correct? Well, what if the things you do chose to associate yourself with are offensive to me? Does that make you guilty by association?

    What about future actions? If you have been friends with someone/worked along side someone for years and one day they say or do something you find offensive does that make you guilty by association?

    And where is the line? Are you guilty if your friend tells off-color jokes in public and you just laugh and don’t say anything or are you not guilty until the same friend is holding meetings/rallies supporting his viewpoint?

    And what happens if/when you distance yourself from said friend? Are you still guilty because you were friends in the past?

    What I am saying is that, while black men may have “limited choices”, they still make the choice to commit crime and then go to prison. “Fewer choices” doesn’t mean “no choices”. How is that an injustice? There is always right and wrong, good and bad, lawful and unlawful.

    This is true. Everyone always has a choice. However, the fact that there are more black men in jail tells me that somewhere along the way there is a piece missing. I’m not sure exactly where the flaw is. Why do black men feel that their only choice is to commit a crime? At what point in their lives did they decide that and what made them decide that?

    Why don’t more white kids make that same decision?

    I’m assuming that all parents (black, white, whatever) have the hope that their children will grow-up to happy, healthy, productive adults. I doubt there are many families sitting around encouraging their sons to join gangs, rob stores, etc. But where in the system to black kids hear the message that they don’t have the same chance as the white kids so they need to go and do something drastic to survive?

    And as far as systemic racism goes – it’s not just a higher number of black men in jail. It’s also a higher number of black kids (boys & girls) that are singled out for special education testing and placed into the remedial classes in schools.

  12. 2. Rick: “You should believe in guilt by association, because that’s how the world works.”

    So ‘how the world works’ is a valid reason for believing something? But a lot of bad stuff happens in the world and that’s just how it works. It doesn’t follow that I should just accept it.

    And from a Christian viewpoint, that definitely doesn’t follow. Christians are told to not conform to the world’s pattern, because it’s messed up and broken. Christians are supposed to be a redeeming force in the world (though we often suck at it [but it’s worth noting that we’ll never fully redeem the world on our own, because we’re just as messed up]). And that redemption often happens by hanging out and interacting with thoroughly messed up people, whether it’s my neighbor or Louis Farrakhan.

    What I think Abby is getting at is that everybody is messed up to some extent. Where do you draw the line and not associate with them? Christianity says you don’t draw a line, you still love them. It sounds like you draw a line somewhere–how do you decide where?

    3. So the length of time determines whether or not it’s OK to rescue a POW? I’m just not seeing how this peace mission is such a bad thing, much less condemn the guy for it. (and if you want to condemn Wright for associating with Louis Farrakhan, that’s one thing [which we seem to disagree on, see #2], but for rescuing a captured pilot?)

    1. Rick: “‘Fewer choices’ doesn’t mean ‘no choices’. How is that an injustice?”

    So if an outside force you have no control over limits your choices that’s not an injustice?

    Rick: “The crime rate among black men may be higher due to factors surrounding historical systemic racism, but not to an existing systemic racism.”

    But if historical systemic racism is still having an impact today, isn’t that a problem? Isn’t that an injustice?

    But besides that, are you saying systemic racism doesn’t exist today?

  13. Just came across this interesting NYT blog entry about renouncing and denouncing:

    “But why should you be held responsible for words spoken by someone else, even if that someone else is a person you work with or share a bed with? I frequently say things that make my wife cringe, but whatever blame attaches to my utterances certainly should not be extended to her, and it would be entirely inappropriate to ask her to denounce me or to fault her if she didn’t.”

    I think it’s a good response to your ‘guilty by association’ argument, Rick. What do you think?

  14. that’s how the world works

    My question is, is this something you are settling with and it’s more of an “oh well, that’s how the world works”? or is it something you agree with and it’s more of a declarative statement -“That’s how the world works.”?

    If it’s something you are settling for, than my question is “how can we change the world”? I’m not saying you have to solve all the world’s problems but there are small steps that can be made to help change the way the world works.

  15. “Certainly the child will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family, but they will face discrimination and racism.”

    The “but” in there implies an opposite is coming in the next phrase. When that opposite is a negative like “they will face discrimination and racism”, the first phrase draws scrutiny for its implied positive message. That phrase is “Certainly the child will not have the same experience as a child raised by a black family”. So, to me, it sounds like you are saying that the experiences of a black child not being raised by a black family are a positive thing. It’s a quick jump to say that you will give this child a better experience than a black family.

    Rick, I don’t think it is correct to say that the word “but” automatically implies opposite, which might change how you read the continually debated sentence written by Kevin.

    I can say things like “You can have candy, but only one piece” or “The sun will come out tomorrow, but it is going to be cold” or “I like the rain, but I don’t like getting wet” and the “buts” do not mean opposite – they mean an exception or a caveat to a rule.

    You’re right the words discrimination and racism have a negative connotation, but that does not mean that the words before the “but” in the sentence are positive and therefore better. It is true to say that an African-American child raised by a white family will have a different experience than a child raised by an African-American family. It is also true to say that I had a different experience being raised in Montana than you did by being raised in Michigan. Neither is better -they are just different.

    Discrimination is a horrible thing and Kevin and Abby’s child will not be free from it because he/she is being raised by white parents. Unfortunately, their child may face more discrimination because their parents are white – not black. It seems Kevin and Abby are aware of this challenge and are willing to accept raising a child who will face discrimination and racism because they believe they can offer love to a child who does not have a home.

    This in no way makes them better than a black family who raises a child. I think the difference is the black parents of a black child have a different understanding of discrimination and racism because they have likely experienced discrimination first hand vs. Kevin and Abby who may have not been the victims of discrimination racial or not. Kevin’s statement seems to mean that he is aware of the fact that his life will change because his child will face discrimination.

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