THE BLOG
03/23/2008 06:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama's Test...And Ours

TANANARIVE DUE

What a difference a week makes.

The Friday before Good Friday, I began my weekend with a sick feeling in my stomach that returned every time I switched on the news. Barack Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, was everywhere. The pastor's incendiary remarks were being played and replayed, and I knew instantly that of all the threats to Barack Obama's candidacy thus far, none had been so potent--nor so utterly personal.

What was Obama to do? Having attended black churches myself (and having been raised by civil rights activists), I understood the cultural context of his pastor's remarks--even those I did not agree with. Having read Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, I had some knowledge of Wright's place in Obama's heart. Wright had guided Obama's path to Christianity. How can that relationship be put into words? How can you convincingly disavow someone who, despite his flaws, has meant so much to you?

Last weekend, my sleep was troubled. I had to turn off the news. All I could think about were the white Obama supporters I know, and have met, who have defied expectations by fueling Obama's campaign because so many of them consider Obama's race irrelevant. Suddenly, Barack Obama was BLACK. His race was no longer an accident of skin color; it now signified his membership in a community that some of his white supporters know little, or nothing, about.

"Well," I told my husband last weekend, "either Obama is the candidate we think he is, or he isn't."

I held on to my faith and waited to see how Obama would respond.

And I was shocked. More like bedazzled.

Instead of backing away and throwing up a fortress between himself and his own church, Obama shined a spotlight on the elephant in our living room. With nuance and intelligence rarely seen in American politics, Obama's speech, "A More Perfect Union," will be studied by future generations. New Mexico's governor Bill Richardson, who endorsed Obama Friday, cited Obama's speech as a significant moment for him personally. By the end of the week, a new CBS News poll reported that voters were also moved: Of those who had heard or read the speech, a whopping 71 percent thought Obama did a good job of explaining his relationship with Wright, and 69 percent thought he did a good job of explaining race relations. Sixty-three percent said they agreed with Obama's views.

So now, as a nation, we are not only talking about the things Obama's pastor said, or what Obama's grandmother might have said, but the remarks we overhear among our own friends and family. We're recalling the times we have been the voice of optimism among our more cynical elders, who suffered hardships and indignities our generation cannot imagine. We're recalling the times we have cringed in our own churches and synagogues.

Once I was attending a service at my own church, and a guest pastor railed against gay marriage. My cheeks burned. Before that point, I had never heard the subject come up at my church. There are several gay members of my church, and I'm sure they cringed too. I was only happy I had not chosen that Sunday to bring a gay white friend who was eager to attend a service after hearing me rave about my church. But I also know that a much larger proportion of the congregation would have been upset if the pastor had preached in favor of gay marriage. A congregation is not a consensus.

The controversy with Rev. Wright, for better or worse politically, strips away the fantasy some voters may have entertained that Barack Obama was just a white man in blackface, utterly isolated and insulated from the racial struggles of the nation where he spent most of his life. To some of those voters, that alone will give them reason to vote for a candidate who was lucky enough to be untouched by those racial struggles; perhaps a candidate whose church reminds them more of their own.

In many ways, the genius of Obama's campaign has been its ability to assemble a tent big enough for supporters who otherwise might not have anything to do with each other. They live in different neighborhoods. They attend different religious institutions. They sit at different tables at their school cafeterias, separated by race and ethnicity. There are no doubt Iowans who voted for Obama who have never known a black family. There are countless blacks supporting Obama who have never attended a public school with white students. Barack Obama didn't create that reality in American life. All he's done, somehow, is to ascend it.

In the past week, the supporters in Obama's tent have been asked to look at each other askance, to wonder how they would really feel about each other without an electrifying candidate to tether them. For some, there were probably feelings of doubt. When I made telephone calls supporting Obama before the Texas primary and caucus--encouraging Obama voters to return to vote in the evening caucus--I doubt that a single person I spoke to was black. And those Texans I spoke to had no idea what I looked like either.

Maybe, in some ways, coalition works better with the veil of anonymity. After all, our reasons for supporting Barack Obama are as varied as our American culture. The white college student worried about the environment has little in common with the elderly blacks who shed tears over the sight of whites voting for a black man. An Iraq war veteran eager to bring our troops home might not relate to a black father's struggle against unemployment. A single white mother and single black mother worried about health insurance have a great deal in common...but they probably don't attend the same church.

While we're sharing family secrets, here's one: There are also some black people who lock their car doors, or cross the street, when they see a black man, or teenager, approaching. Stereotypes are no one's exclusive domain. We are a nation divided. We are, all of us, flawed. That is no secret, or it shouldn't be.

And perhaps it's best that the "secret" of Obama's race is finally being acknowledged. People were bound to notice sooner or later. Barack Obama believes we can handle the truth of our communities' flaws and not turn against each other. He seems to believe, in fact, that we must.

Last week, my faith was tested. Given the polarized nature of our culture--and how miraculous it was that race hadn't become a divisive issue much sooner--I thought Obama's only hope to keep his coalition in the tent would be to distance himself from his pastor, his own church, and the black American experience, in language harsh enough to break his own heart.

Politicians, after all, rarely show us their human side. They think they can't afford to.

But Barack Obama did. He was ready to tell the truth, whether or not we are ready to hear it.

Polls go up and down, so it may take weeks or months to realize whether or not the flap over Obama's pastor will take a toll on his candidacy. I have heard voters say they feel more favorably about Obama because of his speech. But my gut tells me that some other potential supporters may not feel as comfortable in Obama's tent, unable to shake their fear that Obama, ultimately, is too different.

Never mind that different is what we've been asking for. Or that different is exactly what we need.
Last week, in a noteworthy demonstration of pure leadership, Barack Obama showed us how his different approach to politics only begins with his skin color. Political observers have also said that Obama's campaign has shifted the models for fundraising and volunteering so significantly that campaigns can never be the same. Where his other "differences" end, none of us can say.

He is the candidate I thought he was, and more.

Last weekend, I thought it would only be possible for Barack Obama to win the nomination, or the presidency, if he was willing to play political games I thought he would despise. He could win, but it would be at great personal and collective cost.

A week later, I am more convinced it is possible for Barack Obama to win the Democratic nomination, and the presidency beyond. Gov. Richards' endorsement on Friday only strengthens my faith. But there is a major difference: Instead of worrying that my candidate will diminish himself--a common and tragic practice when candidates are tested--I have seen Barack Obama stand even taller.

This is who I am, he proclaimed, when all political wisdom would have advised him to hope that no one would notice his race again. This is who WE are.

We as whites. We as blacks. We as Hispanics. We as Asians. We the People.

I'm still a realist. I know that there are voters who will not be able to forgive some of Rev. Wright's words, no matter what the cultural and historical context, and will feel forever convinced that Obama shares, or absorbed, his pastor's feelings. Cynical voters will see calculation. Weary voters will give up hope. The drumbeat of Fear has worked before, and it could always work again. For John McCain's party, and perhaps Hillary Clinton, the drumbeat of Fear is the best strategy.

But, like Obama, I believe we can rise above our fears. We can overcome the fears of our loved ones; and we can overcome our fears of strangers who live in a different neighborhood.

Last week, I experienced a renewal of faith in both my candidate and my nation's people. Yes, the Wright controversy caused me pain and concern as an Obama supporter. I now understand that there will be heartaches between now and November, and some of them will seem insurmountable. Sometimes, I'll have to turn off the news for a day or two and take a deep breath.

But this Easter weekend, I slept just fine.

******

STEVEN BARNES

The recent flap over Rev. Wright is sad, and understandable. Questioning Obama's judgment in attending the church is reasonable. One might wonder:

1) Did he agree with Wright?
2) Couldn't he have predicted that this would come back to haunt him?
3) Why was he attending a church where such attitudes existed?

These are reasonable, as I said. I would suggest that, were I Obama, based on what I have heard and read, my answers would be as follows:

1) No, I don't agree. But I understand his emotions, and they reflect the emotions of many blacks who consider themselves disenfranchised.
2) I don't make decisions in my personal life based upon their political impact.
3) One attends church not only for what you can get, but what you can give. If this is a congregation carrying such wounds that this rhetoric was an undercurrent, they need people like me to balance and contribute. Leaving would be self-serving: This is my community.

#####

I have heard multiple people express that they simply can't understand the emotions expressed. Note that agreeing with them, or approving of them, are very different from understanding them.

If you can't understand them, my personal position is:
1) You are in denial about the historical status and treatment of blacks in America.
2) You are in denial about the way human beings process emotions.

In other words, in some way you have concluded that black people are behaving in a different manner than whites would, given the same set of historical circumstances. Fine--you have the right to believe that. But you should state it clearly, so that we know where you are coming from.

Here are some questions I have heard during the last 24-hour period:

Q: Slavery happened hundreds of years ago. Why don't they just get over it?

A: Slavery ended about 150 years ago, but segregation wasn't abolished until the 1960s. That means that the majority of black people were raised by parents and grandparents who grew up in an America where they were legally second-class citizens.

Q: But it's over NOW! Why can't they get over it?

A: Right. People just "get over" the things that happened to them in childhood, and cultures forget their past. This is why we celebrate the birth of a Jewish carpenter thousands of years ago, why Jews celebrate Passover, why people raised during the Depression horde money, why countless people struggle through therapy trying to deal with abuse in their formative years. Clearly, cultures and human beings have a memory for things that happened to them. "Those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it." However painful it may be to remember, that cultural/genetic memory has a survival value.

Q: "God should Damn America"? How can you excuse that?

A: I don't excuse it--I understand it. There's a difference. That is a vomiting-up of centuries of pain and hurt. Once, saying something like that would get a black man killed. You can suppress that pain, but you can't destroy it. It has to be vented and processed.

Q: How do we know Obama doesn't feel the same way?

A: We don't, any more than we can "know" anything about what another human being feels. But if we take people at their word, and their words and actions, over time, tend to be in alignment, we can give the benefit of the doubt. Barack Obama's books detail a fantastic struggle toward self-discovery, one that resonated. I don't believe he was faking it. What seems to be true is that Obama has worked through an impressive amount of this pain, more than most white people can believe exists within blacks as a result of our time here. He has worked through more of it than Rev. Wright. If Obama turns his back on every black person who expresses anger, he would have to associate with no black people at all. And if he had to associate with no people who express anger, he would have no associates at all.

Q: What does Rev. Wright (or Spike Lee or other rich black folks) have to be upset about? They're doing great!

A: So...if you're doing fine, but your sister is being raped next door, you should be fine with that? If you're doing well, but your brother has been robbed and beaten, you'd be happy? Of course not. You might disagree that things are "bad," but you should grasp clearly that, if blacks believe things are "bad," they are likely to be upset.

Q: Why are they so angry?

A: Anger is a mask over fear. Ask rather: What do they have to be afraid of? For that answer, look at incarceration rates, violent death statistics, and so forth. Look at a history of lynching and all-white juries. Yes! Many things have changed, but many have not. Human beings have long, ugly memories, and it takes generations to heal. When 90% of the black people born before 1960 are dead, I think we'll be pretty much past it. Like white racism will be a marginalized issue by the time 90% of the white people born before 1950 are dead. Nothing personal.

Q: But are you blaming black-on-black crime, teen pregnancy, and drug addiction on white people?

A: No. I am saying that those disproportionate statistics are the result of differential history and social disruption. This was created by slavery and the subsequent century of oppression, yes. But black people must take responsibility for their communities and actions. This is very similar to the fact that, yes, child abuse can produce emotional dysfunction, but it is the responsibility of the individual to heal themselves and get on with life. Whites would not have done better under the same circumstances.

Q: But are you saying America is a terrible country?

A: Me personally? Hell, no! America is great--from my point of view, arguably the best country in the history of the world. But Americans are still the same jealous, bigoted, fearful human beings you find anywhere else, and you'd better believe that they can do terrible things and then say "Who, me?" just like everyone else. The more you've traveled, the more you study history and psychology, the more you realize that all of this strife is just the pale side of human nature.

Q: But black immigrants come over here and do better than American blacks. Doesn't that prove America isn't racist?

A: No. The descendants of slaves are not immigrants. People like Michael Savage routinely seem to forget this. We had our names, religion, lands, culture, leaders, personal power and language stripped away. What was left was a computer waiting for a program, and the program loaded into our memories was called "Three Quarters of a Human Being." We were domesticated, like turning a wolf into a dog. Any who resisted domestication were tortured or killed. Then, after three hundred years of brainwashing, we were turned loose with few resources and no compensation, into a hostile culture where even supportive white people tended to think we were...a little slow.

I counsel white people every week whose damaged and conflicted programming has resulted in obesity, drug addiction, troubled marriages, homelessness, and far more. As humans, we are awesomely vulnerable to that early programming. To be quite honest, I have to believe that whites who ask these questions about black anger have an underlying assumption: Black people are different. Without that pre-assumption, they would be forced to ask: "Under what circumstances would good, intelligent white people feel and behave in the same fashion?"

In my experience, liberals tend to ask "How have conditions been different for black people?" Conservatives tend to ask, "How are black people different from us?"

I know a thousand Reverend Wrights. My own family contains "Reverend Wrights": good, intelligent people who grew up being told to love a country that, rather obviously, did not love them as much as it loved its fair-haired, blue-eyed children. If you grew up in a family where you believed your parents lavished affection on one sibling while beating or depriving or denigrating you...how did it feel? What did it do to your life?

Extrapolate that out to cultures, and sub-cultures, and you may understand Rev. Wright's volatile sermon a bit better. Accurate? I think not. Understandable? Absolutely. And I honor Obama's refusal to throw him under the bus. And I do not think it was "bad judgment" for Obama to attend a church where, obviously, his presence would have been a healing influence. Bad judgment politically? Quite possibly.

I, for one, am glad that conventional politics aren't the most important thing to Barack Obama. It makes me all the happier to vote for him.