Saturday, May 31, 2008

How I Read Rev. Wright

After I wrote my well-received post on Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Black Conservatism, my former history professor contacted me and asked if I would like to lead a seminar on it for his African-American history class this term. I happily agreed. But when I met with him a few days ago, he said that we might have to change the topic. "Wright is old news," he said.

But it seems he spoke a bit too soon. While Obama's resignation from the Trinity Church was not precipitated by Wright but by comments from Rev. Michael Pfleger (who is not completely unknown to me but with whom I am far less familiar with), it certainly has brought back into the limelight the Black Liberation Theology that Trinity preaches.

The knowledge of politically engaged people is, as a rule, wide but not deep, save for a few issues. I include myself in this. Even though I consider myself relatively engaged, my knowledge of most issues is basically what a reasonably intelligent person would glean from reading The Washington Post or The New Republic. That's enough for me to feel reasonably okay talking about Iraq, or foreign policy, or economics, but it's more accurate to say I possess information rather than expertise. It is rare that I would feel confident second-guessing the "factual" coverage on these issues, for example.

By contrast, I do consider myself to have a pretty deep knowledge of Black Political Thought -- to the degree where objectively I simply have a stronger background than most of the mainstream media coverage of it. I've read from most major American Black political thinkers, left and right: Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Schuyler, Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, James Cone, Derrick Bell, and Clarence Thomas (the only major missing name is Thomas Sowell). I'm sure economists want to gouge their eyes out when they see how the mainstream media covers budget questions, because I'm feeling the same way about how Black Political thinking is being utterly butchered throughout this whole campaign season. Unlike most people, I've actually read more of Jeremiah Wright than you'd get on YouTube or CNN clips. And having both that direct exposure to his works, as well as the background in Black Political Thought (and Liberation Theology specifically) to put it in context, makes all the difference in the world. It bothers me that people who have no relevant background in the field, have done no reading of the thinkers in question (not even Wright himself -- let alone Cone or Carmichael!), feel so confident in making assertions on the subject. Do people do this in economics? I ask this seriously -- I would not, I think, venture such bold opinions on an economics question, because I know I am no economist. Yet it seems when the subject is Whites talking about Black Political thinking, this restraint does not apply. And that is worrisome -- it implies that Whites assume they automatically (by virtue of being White?) possess all the relevant knowledge by which to cast judgment.

A while back, I received in the mail two collections of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons: What Makes You So Strong (1993) and Good News: Sermons of Hope for Today's Families (1995). I was supposed to review them, but never got around to it -- so consider this my review. Over the past several months I've been perusing them, and it has created a strange disjuncture between the portrayal of Rev. Wright and his Trinity Church, and the actual words he's spoken and commitments he's made as a pastor.

I obtained the books as part of a project I am working on regarding Black Political Thought, and I opened them expecting Wright to be a pulpit-version of the controversial founder of Black Liberation Theology, James Cone. But quickly, I discovered that this was not the case. Though he has a doctorate, Wright is not an academic theologian. He is a minister, and as such his concerns are more localized. The vast majority of his sermons focus on personal and collective uplift. It is, in this sense, quite (Booker T.) Washington-esque -- strikingly so, when read (as I did) side-by-side with Washington's writings. He wants Black parents to demand their children succeed in school. He urges Black families to stay together -- and that Black men show commitment to their spouses and children. He works against the scourge of drug addiction and gang violence. Whatever relationship that has or does not have to White racism is not his primary concern.

Does Wright discuss White racism? Absolutely, though not at the once-every-three-words clip that Fox News implies. But the context is not "hate Whitey." It's really more, to be crass, "screw Whitey." As in: White folks aren't going to solve your problems (why on earth would you be foolish enough to trust them to? Have you noticed a kind of pattern in that regard for 250 years of American history?). You have to solve your problems (Clarence Thomas has cited this same logic as his reason for embracing a libertarian-conservatism, saying "It reminded me of the mantra of the Black Muslims I had met in college: Do for self, brother."). And that's the bigger theme: personal responsibility and racial uplift. Wright tells parents they have the "right to demand excellence" as well as obedience from their children. He urges that interdenominational disputes in the Chicago religious community be cast aside because
You need every last one of those preachers. We need one another. We have enough crack cocaine in our community and enough ignorance in our community to be working from now until Jesus comes. Those aren’t your competitors. Those are your companions.

This, incidentally, is why Trinity has forged relationships with Louis Farrakhan, who for all his faults (and they are a legion) has done tremendous work in terms of criminal rehabilitation and drug treatment -- the same reasons why conservatives such as Robert Novak, Dan Quayle, and Jack Kemp urged Republicans to ally with Farrakhan in the mid-90s.

Sometimes, "screw Whitey" takes the form of turning the other cheek to White insults. Whites say Blacks don't have a history independent of White America? But Blacks do have such a history -- proud and glorious. Whites call their speech differences "dialects" but Black linguistics "bad English." Bogus. Wright believes that racial pride is a precondition to racial uplift -- you have to love yourself in order to make something of yourself. It is a profoundly conservative observation, indeed, precisely the mentality White Conservatives have been urging Blacks to adopt for years. It is a mentality that Whites hold tensely -- we want them to not depend on us, but still trust us and love us. But there is not much ground we have to demand the latter two qualities. White Conservatives want Blacks to be only partially independent because they see it only with regard to the broader White political project of small government; it requires no severance with broader American society or norms. Blacks, if they so choose, will declare independence because that's what they feel they need to do with survive -- and that remains just as true with regards to American society as it does American government. This is not hateful. There is nothing hateful about surviving.

So no, reading Wright's sermons, I never encountered anything that was hateful to Whites. I found a lot that urged Blacks to ignore Whites, and admonishments (backed up by considerable history) not to depend on Whites, but nothing that was incitement to violence or bigotry (unless it is bigotry on the part of Blacks to not put their stock in White magnanimity). Now, one could argue that the collections I read are biased -- that they would not contain Wright's most inflammatory material. There's a little to that (the "God damn America" sermon, for example, was not there -- I believe it was delivered after the books were published), but ultimately I find that prospect doubtful for at least four reasons. First, the books were published in the early- to mid-90s, well before anyone could have predicted that Wright would have the attention of the entire media. Second, the books do contain plenty of condemnations of White racism, it just isn't the focus. Third, Wright's claim to fame as a public figure when he was writing these (i.e., before he became "Barack Obama's pastor") was as a Black Liberation Theologian -- he had no incentive to downplay his radicalism in his published works. And finally, if there is one thing we know about Rev. Wright, it's that he does not exactly view discretion to be the better part of valor. Outspokenness is a pretty well-established character trait of his -- there's no reason to believe he'd pull his punches in his collected sermons.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the "God damn America" Jeremiad. This is, in many ways, an apex of Wright's preaching -- it is not an outlier, but, like the sermon delivered by Rev. Pfleger, nor is it simply the repetition of the dominant themes of Trinity's sermon (Of course, I'm 100%, absolutely positive that Michael van der Galien made that statement after a good faith analysis of a solid, representative cross-sample of the last 20 years of Trinity's sermons. It would be horribly irresponsible to say such things without having even looked at the evidence.).

Jeremiads are interesting -- they have a long and distinguished pedigree in the Christian tradition, and one defining feature of that pedigree is that the targets of the sermon are never keen on being so identified. Conservative pastors launch Jeremiads all the time, condemning America for being too tolerant of homosexuals and abortion. Wright's Jeremiad condemns America for being too tolerant of racism, sexism, and homophobia (Wright, incidentally, has been a key leader in trying to rid the Black Church of its homophobia -- a serious problem for which he deserves great accolades for tackling). For my part, I do not know how effective Jeremiads are (don't they usually get ignored until God Herself starts raining down the hellfire?). But I certainly do not object to the point that America needs to be awakened as to the reality of racial injustice here. And I do not believe America possesses some inherent quality making as immune to damnation. We, as everyone else, have to earn our blessings.

Recall what I said earlier -- about how Wright is urging his flock not to hate Whites but to ignore them. That is the linchpin of this sermon as well. It is crushing to be told you have to love your abuser -- physically, emotionally, spiritually. America has abused Blacks (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). Why should they praise America? "What, to the Negro, is the Fourth of July?" (as Fredrick Douglass so memorably put it). Why should they count on America to look out for them? It hasn't, and Wright believes, it won't. God damn America represents spiritual and psychic release from an abusive relationship. Freed from the shackles of having to love their abuser, Blacks can love themselves and lift themselves.

One might gather from all of this that I agree with Rev. Wright on every point, or at least every point I've discussed hitherto. I do not, although my position is more complicated than that makes it out to be. I've noted that, as a White person, I cannot ethically place anti-racism practice as "screw Whites". I have an obligation as a White person to break down the belief that engagement with Whites is a waste of time. But the bridge must be over my back -- I have precisely zero credibility with which to demand such engagement. So in that sense, I would hope that Rev. Wright would come to see Whites as a partner in the project of uplift, but I cannot "disagree" with him if he does not see us so.

Having made that concession, I can still indict certain strategies for Black uplift as unwise or even potentially immoral (as I've done, for example, with regards to his words on AIDS). But the basic acknowledgment of autonomy and self-determination: that Blacks have the prima facia right to determine how they want to pursue their project of liberation, has to come first. And part of allowing Blacks autonomy in this project means allowing them to say "screw Whites -- we're doing this alone."


Stentor said...

it implies that Whites assume they automatically (by virtue of being White?) possess all the relevant knowledge by which to cast judgment.

I suspect this is a case where even if the outcome is racist (because it reinforces the longstanding tradition of whites presuming to speak for and about everyone else), the origin is not. You severely overestimate people's typical deference to expertise -- just look at some of the deconstructions of white evangelical Christianity by people who have never set foot in a church, or the passionate condemnations of evolution that could be rebutted in BIO 101.

schiller1979 said...

White Conservatives want Blacks to be only partially independent because they see it only with regard to the broader White political project of small government; it requires no severance with broader American society or norms.

I'm not sure in what sense you mean "independent". If you're referring to a lack of economic dependence on government and/or not-for-profit institutions, I don't think that the right opposes such independence. The argument is often made that the left has a vested interest in perpetuating such dependence.

If you're referring to independence from the norms of the larger society, does that not contradict the statements of Rev. Wright that you quote that encourage pursuit of education, maintaining intact families, avoiding chemical dependency, etc.?

Also, it seems to me to be at least an exaggeration to refer to support for small government as a "White political project". I haven't seen data on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if support for small government is somewhat stronger among white people than among black people. But I think it's a small minority of white people who truly support small government as I do, i.e., not just wanting to pay lower taxes, but wanting to forego the protection of the federal nanny in terms of, for example, doing my retirement saving for me.

PG said...

Severance with the broader American society, in pursuit of building an independent black community, might include support and preference for HBUs over majority-white schools, investment in black-owned businesses that may not have as great monetary reward as investment in, say, Microsoft; encouraging one's children to be in black playgroups like Jack & Jill and to join black frats and sororities; focusing charitable donations on one's black church, which in turn assists a predominately black group of the needy -- in short, to build up a black community rather than simply integrating into the broader society. To do any of these things exhibits an attention to race, a failure of "color-blindness," that usually doesn't play well with white conservatives (and many white liberals).

I did not realize until recently the extent to which my family might be considered "separatist" from American society. My family certainly is not dependent on the government or on charity, but we also are somewhat independent of American social norms of family. The opportunities for separation are much greater for African Americans because they are so much greater in number and have a much longer history in America.

PG said...

Incidentally, an interesting piece on whether Clarence Thomas's black classmates also thought their Yale Law degrees were worth 15 cents.