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Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis

Posted: March 18, 2008 10:00 AM

Healing the Wounds of Race

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It has simmered throughout this campaign, and now race has exploded into the center of the media debate about the presidential race. Just when a black political leader is calling us all to a new level of responsibility, hope, and unity; the old and divisive rhetoric of race from both blacks and whites is rearing its ugly head to bring down the best chance we have had for years of finally moving forward.

And that is indeed the real issue here. A black man is closer to possibly becoming president than ever before in American history. And this black man is not even running as "a black man" but as a new kind of political leader who believes the country is ready for a new kind of politics. But a new kind of politics and a new face for political leadership is deeply threatening to all the forces that represent the old kind of politics in America. And all the rising focus on race in this election campaign has one purpose and one purpose alone -- to stop Barack Obama from becoming President of the United States.

Barack Obama should win or lose his Party's nomination or the presidency based on the positions he takes regarding the great issues of our time and his capacity to lead the country and America's role in the world. He must not win or lose because of the old politics of race in America. That would be a tragedy for all of us.

The cable news stations and talk radio are playing carefully selected excerpts of the most potentially incendiary statements from Rev. Jeremiah Wright's fiery sermons, the retiring pastor of Barack Obama and his family's home Trinity Church in Chicago. Obama, while affirming the tremendous work his church has done in his city and around the nation, has condemned the most controversial remarks of his pastor. But the whole controversy points to the enormous gap in understanding between the mainstream black community in America and the experience of many white Americans. And that is what we are going to have to heal if we are ever to move forward.

Here is what I mean.

There is a deep well of both frustration and anger in the African American community in these United States of America. And those feelings are borne of the concrete experience of real oppression, discrimination, and blocked opportunities that most of America's white citizens take for granted. African Americans across the spectrum of income and success will speak personally to those feelings of frustration and anger, when white people are willing to listen. But usually we are not. In 2008, to still not comprehend or seek to understand the reality of black frustration and anger, is to be in a state of white denial which, very sadly, is where many white Americans are.

The black church pulpit has historically been a place of prophetic truth-telling about the realities that black people experience in their own country. Indeed, the black church has often been the only place where such truths are ever told. And, black preachers have had the pastoral task of nurturing the spirits of people who feel beaten down week after week. Strong and prophetic words from black church pulpits are often a source of comfort and affirmation for black congregations. The truth is that many white Americans would indeed feel uncomfortable with the rhetoric of many black preachers from many black churches all across the country.

But if you look beyond the grainy black and white clips of the dashiki clad Rev. Wright and the angry black male voice (all designed to provoke stereotypes and fear) to actually listen to what the words are saying about America being run by "rich white people" while blacks have cabs speeding by them, and about American misdeeds around the world, it's hard to disagree with many of the facts presented. It's rather the angry tone of Wright's comments that provides the offense and the controversy.

Ironically, a new generation of black Americans is now eager and ready to move beyond the frustration and anger to a new experience of opportunity and hope. And nobody represents that shift more than Barack Obama. There is a generational shift occurring within the black community itself, between an older generation who are sometimes perceived to be stuck in the politics of victimization and grievance, and a younger generation who believe that opportunity and progress are now possible--not by ignoring, but by being committed to actually changing the facts of oppression and discrimination.

Barack Obama represents that hope of dealing with the substance of the issues of injustice while at the same time articulating the politics of hope, and even the possibility of racial unity. Obama's attraction to many who are white, especially a new generation, demonstrates the promise of a new racial politics in America. But to be a leader for a new generation of black Americans, Barack Obama had to be firmly rooted in the black church tradition, where the critique of white America, the sustenance of the African American community, and God's promise for the future are all clearly articulated. That's why he began attending Trinity Church where he was converted to Jesus Christ in the black liberationist tradition of, among others, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

So it would be a great tragedy if the old rhetoric of black frustration and anger were to now hurt Barack Obama, who has become the best hope of beginning to heal that very frustration and anger. Obama has never chosen to talk about race in the way that Rev. Jeremiah Wright does on the video clips that keep playing, and indeed has never played "the race card" at any time in this election. It's been his opponents that have, especially the right-wing conservative media machine that wants America to believe he is secretly a Muslim and is from a "racist" church.

This most recent controversy over race just demonstrates how enormous the gap still is between whites and blacks in America--in our experience and our capacity to understand one another. May God help us to heal that divide and truly bless America.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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