Friday, March 14, 2008

Yo Mama! What Now, Obama?

Ned Barnett © 2008

Would you sit still for and break bread with a man who insulted your mother? Would you support that man – let alone congregate with that man for more than 20 years – if he repeatedly insulted your mother and her people in front of your wife and your children? Would you expose your children to a man who repeatedly – and in the strongest language – told them that their grandmother was evil, and that her people were the root of all evil?

I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. But apparently, Senator Barack Obama sees things differently. And that choice – to attend for 20 years the church of a virulent racist, a man who seems to believe in, and preach about, every race-tinged conspiracy theory of the 20th century – has landed Senator Obama in the communications crisis of his life.

I realize that I’m on shaky ground here. We learned this week that even a lifetime of leadership in racial healing isn’t enough of a shield for what I have to say. Former Congresswoman – and the first woman to run as a major party candidate for the Vice Presidency – Geraldine Ferraro found that out this week. According to the “new rules of public discourse,” when it comes to criticizing – or even to commenting on – Senator Barack Obama, even life-long and very public opposition to racism is no defense against vicious charges of racism. From day-one, Senator Obama has been the ultimate Teflon candidate, with surrogates eager to dash forward and brand as racist anybody who dares to criticize the Senator or even mention his race.

So it is with more than a little trepidation that I venture forth into the danger zone – I know that my efforts to integrate the Methodist Church in Georgia (and to assure that black ministers in Georgia earned a living wage, with benefits) will not shield me from criticism, nor will an award from the Urban League that I won for my (then) South Carolina employer protect me.

Yet an issue of racism has erupted around Senator Barack Obama, and as of this writing, he’s yet to explain how a man – widely known for being “post-racial,” a candidate widely known for bringing the races together and defusing the entire issue of race in politics – could have stayed in the congregation of a virulent racist for 20 years, let alone contributing more than $22,000 in 2006 alone to that man and his ministry.

While the Senator has not only distanced himself from Reverend Wright’s words, he’s said that he was never in the room when Reverend Wright spoke the incendiary phrases – “God Damn America” – or accused America of creating HIV AIDS as a tool of genocide or, on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Reverend Wright’s accusation that America had brought on the attack because of everything from Hiroshima to Palestine to AIDS. Perhaps he didn’t hear those particular comments. Perhaps. However, there is no way that Senator Obama could have been ignorant of Reverend Wright’s beliefs about race and racism in America. The Senator had to know that Reverend Wright blamed “rich white people” for all the ills of the earth, if only because he’s been dodging and half-answering questions about this since at least last October – two months before Reverend Wright gave virulent racist and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award last December.

Which brings me to a question I’ve not seen asked before today. In the cultural melting-pot immigrant-filled neighborhood in which I grew up, there was no quicker way to start a fight than to diss somebody’s mother. That act is a deadly sin that seems to cross all cultural lines, and – as a way of insulting others, it seems to be alive and well in the black community. That is just one more reason why I am amazed that Barack Obama stayed with his Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years. That congregation’s pastor, Reverend Wright, seems never to pass up a chance to stick it to whitey … which means that Senator Obama’s own minister was dissing Obama’s mother, and doing so “in front of God and everybody,” including the Senators two impressionable daughters.

Clearly, when starting a political career in inner-city Chicago, it was useful for a young Barack Obama to attend such a church. If nothing else, having a membership in Reverend Wright’s church served to validated Senator Obama’s credentials as a real black man – in spite of his white mother – in a community where your degree of “blackness” apparently mattered. However, once he decided to extend his reach beyond Urban Chicago for state-wide and national politics, what had once been a validater had become a liability – a liability that the media’s unwillingness to raise the race card with a man whose career was built on “post-racial” unity – had held in abeyance until now.

Now, Senator Obama has started to fight back, but his comments to date have created more PR problems than they solved. First, he equated Reverend Wright to the “crazy uncle” that every family has, and tolerates, while not accepting his rants as reality. Then he said he hadn’t been present when those hate-tinged words (and many more – as the torrent of video clips seems to show) – as if not being present protected him from culpability in financially and personally supporting a man with so many race-filled, hate-filled things to say about whites and America. Then he said he didn’t support “any of those” statements – without quite saying which statements he was disavowing. Most recently, he’s said that since Reverend Wright was about to retire, he saw no reason to leave the church – something that might be true today, but something that doesn’t explain the last 20 years.

However, actions speak louder than words. Senator Obama and his wife chose Reverend Wright’s church after carefully “shopping around,” looking for a “spiritual home” for their family. Then they stayed in that congregation for 20 years – providing significant financial support (nearly $2,000 per month - $500 per week – in 2006 alone) – and raising their daughters in the bosom of this church’s family. They sat through 20 years of sermons – some of which even mentioned the Senator himself – while their “crazy uncle” ranted about white American conspiracies from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki to AIDS and crack cocaine and 9/11/2001. Not only that, but Senator Obama dedicated his political biography – The Audacity of Hope – to the man whose sermon inspired the title. Last straw, when he decided to run for President, the Senator appointed his spiritual leader, minister and friend to his campaign’s religion steering committee – a position that, at this writing, Reverend Wright still holds.

Senator Clinton has, almost from day-one, dropped supporters and campaign officials for even hinting at some of Senator Obama’s potential personal vulnerabilities, ranging from youthful drug abuse to his potentially narrow appeal to the black community. Yet Reverend Wright, who’s made a career of blaming white America – including, apparently, the Senator’s mother and grandparents – for all our social ills, remains a respected campaign official.

Which means that Senator Obama has a lot of explaining to do to America and America’s voters. He needs to explain – as a candidate who bases his credibility on his sound judgment – why he has shown such remarkable “judgment” about this man. He needs to explain why the Senator has, over more than 20 years, supported personally and financially, a man who damns America and blames whites for all the world’s ills, and does that in the name of God. He needs to explain why – as a “post-racial” candidate intent on healing – he chooses to associate himself with a virulent racist intent on re-segregating America. It will take more than a denial, a denunciation or a repudiation of Reverend Wright right now to explain away 20 years of questionable decisions and politically-dangerous associations.

I’m glad I’m not Senator Obama’s spokesman today – it will take more spinning than an Illinois twister to make this set of decisions and choices and lame excuses go away. What can explain any man associating with someone who regularly disses his mama? Would you do that?