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Posted by on May 5, 2008 in Politics | 2 comments

Jeremiah Wright & Martin Luther King: “Tolerance” v. “Equality & Justice for all”

I came across a Sarah Posner interview with Black religion expert Jonathan Walton in Salon the other day and it has stuck with me since. In it Walton explains how King used direct nonviolent confrontation as a means to reconciliation:

King believed in nonviolent, direct confrontation. And thus when we come marching through the town, we are trying to expose inequality and expose violence. And if you practice nonviolent confrontation, you morally shame your opponent toward moral suasion. And when you shame them toward moral suasion, it’s not to defeat your opponent, but to reunite with your opponent… [Rev. Jeremiah] Wright sees himself in that tradition. King was very much in the tradition of the African-American jeremiad. And that is where he would call out the sins of the nation so the nation would live up to its ideals and its promises… On April 4, 1967, King stood in front of the Riverside Church and said that if America does not change its ways, America, if you continue to be so prideful, God will tear down this nation, and rise up another nation that doesn’t even know my name… It was his God damn America moment. And the Sunday after King was assassinated, do you know what King was scheduled to preach that Sunday morning? His sermon title was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

It puts the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in such a different context. In King’s day we were fighting for freedom and justice and liberty for all. Now we’ve moved to a far more narrower notion of “tolerance” and with that move comes the right to be intolerant of anyone who does not meet our high standard of tolerance. Wright’s “anger” prevents him from meeting that high standard so we are free to pile on. And pile on we all do!

Much of the commentary on Wright’s various speeches has cast them either in terms of the Oedipal relationship with the candidate or the tactical impact on the campaign. And so we do not have to address Wright’s essential concern: the legacy of racial inequality in America.

Oh. Right. Obama’s promise is post-racial. And, Sully says, post-boomer. He’s transformational. He’s rebranding America. He transcends race.

Wright’s ruined the script!

It is clear that Wright’s performance demanded a response. A painful break. But it is equally clear that the issues Wright raises were bound to come up. And they are bound to be continually raised by the Republicans throughout the campaign if Obama is the candidate. And why shouldn’t they be?

There are real racial issues in America. They need to be addressed and can’t just be skipped over. To name a choice few, our cities and schools are still largely segregated, there’s a pay gap between black and white families that has grown steadily over the last thirty years, and one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison.

If Obama won’t address these and issues like them, who will? Obama’s specialty is soaring oratory. Perhaps what we need is some soaring oratory here. The Constitution Center speech on race in Philadelphia was a great start. Give us more! The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Wright’s point on AIDS, for example, was that a people who have suffered the indignity of the medically unjustified Tuskegee Study of untreated Syphilis that ended only after it was revealed in the press and as the result of a public outcry in 1972 (the year I graduated from high school) may, in fact, have some real justification to doubt their good government. Press (and Wright’s) sensationalism aside, the point was an obvious one.

Here, where I live, you can hear similarly paranoid suspicions raised about our government by good and loyal flag-waving Americans every single day on white rural Christian conservative and Southern Heritage a.m. radio stations. Those suspicions are rooted in far less concrete examples of government intrusions into their lives.

My argument is not that we should legitimize such sentiments, whether they’re from the left, the right, or off the map. My argument is not that we should tolerate these arguments. My argument is, rather, that we should engage these arguments. To be enraged by them does no good. To dismiss them does no good. And to further marginalize them does none of us any good at all!

What I want my candidate to do — what I wish Barack Obama would do — is to reach out and include and speak to them, too. Obama has shown a capacity like no other candidate in recent memory to communicate, understand, establish ties, build trust…

I want us to find ways to reach out and include a much broader range of views so that, to the greatest extent possible, we can all be part of we the people.

That’s my audacious hope.