Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Obama As Rorschach Test

In a previous post on Barack Obama, I was tempted to say that his blackness was like a national Rorshach test, meaning something different to everyone who looked at it. But that seemed to be too broad a claim to defend at 3 o'clock in the morning, so I opted instead for the simple observation that his blackness is already playing out in some very counterintuitive ways.

Now the beginnings of a Barack backlash have begun to show up on the national radar. And it should come as no surprise that one of the early arrivals focuses on his racial identity. Specifically the racial politics of his church, the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who has been described as Obama's spiritual mentor. Here's how Investors Business Daily puts it in this hatchet job:

Those spreading rumors that Barack Hussein Obama is a "closet Muslim" are off the mark. His religion has little to do with Islam and everything to do with a militantly Afrocentric movement that's no less troubling.

Wow. Seems like pretty strong stuff for a guy who was asked on national TV as recently as two days ago whether he was black enough. (His response, that when it comes time to find a cab he is, might have been lost on many white Americans, but I'm sure scored some points with the Black community.)

Is it true? The easy response would be, Of course not. This sort of claim is not meant to stand up to scrutiny. Its purpose, similar to the madrassah story, is to plant an image in the minds of people who don't know much about Obama yet, the image of the Black bogeyman.

But to dismiss the story out of hand would be to miss an opportunity to advance the dialogue of racial understanding that Obama's candidacy presents. Because the real answer is a bit more complicated.

To begin with, Trinity UCC is an Afrocentric congregation. As IVB correctly points out, its mission statement promotes the Black Value System, a twelve-point plan that calls for, among other things, commitment to the Black community, disavowal of the pursuit of "Middleclassness", and a pledge to support Black institutions. What they fail to mention is that this is followed directly by a 10-Point Vision that defines Trinity as "A congregation actively seeking RECONCILIATION." (Emphasis in original.)

So what about Dr. Jeremiah Wright, "...the dashiki-wearing minister of this militantly black church...", as IVB describes him? Well, here he is giving an interview on morals and democracy to The Fire on the Prairie radio program. Among the quotes of interest? For a start, there's this:

If you don't learn how to disagree and still see the person with whom you're disagreeing as a human being, as one who has value, who has worth, who is just as important in God's eyes as you are, then we're going to end up with a Balkanization in the States...

Then there's a passage describing Bill Clinton's clergy breakfasts, specifically how impressed he was with the seating plan, which was designed to encourage ecumenical dialogue. Here's his admiring paraphrase of how Clinton compared our religious values and beliefs to walls that contain our identity:

You don't ever build those walls so tall that you can't see over them, to see that that's a human being on the other side of the wall, who has different beliefs and their own walls. And that God loves you both.

Wright doesn't hide his desire to advance the conditions of the Black community. So, for instance, Trinity UCC sponsors a fellowship program each year to help send an African-American congregation member to theological seminary. But they do it through the Fund for Theological Education, a scholarship and information clearinghouse that "...advocates excellence and diversity in pastoral ministry and theological scholarship..." as part of its mission statement. Not quite what you'd expect from a radical, Black nationalist/separatist.

This kind of smear campaign takes advantage of the perception among whites that Afrocentrism is a sort of reverse racism, practicing segregation under the guise of self-help. A perception that confuses the reflex of an oppressed group to close ranks and circle the wagons with the methods of oppression that for so long excluded them.

But that confusion has not sprung up in a vacuum. From the birth of the Black Power movement in the 1960's to its re-birth as Afrocentrism in the 1980's, Black militancy in the pursuit of civil rights has been no stranger to messages that bordered on, and sometimes crossed the line into, hatefulness, often towards whites, not uncommonly towards Jews.

Assuming that his membership in the church signifies his acceptance of its agenda, Obama would do well to articulate his vision of Afrocentrism, and how it fits into his vision of a united America. Not only would it keep his opponents from doing it for him. It would bring a meaningful discussion of race in general, and his race in particular, to the forefont of the campaign. Until then, everyone will just see what they want to see.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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