06/03/2008 07:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Racism Bites Back, Using Religion as its Pawn

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question regarding Senator Obama's decision to leave United Trinity Church.

After Barack Obama resigned his church membership, one could hear a collective sigh of relief. The standard reactions were "He had no choice," "It's the right thing to do," and "About time." United Trinity scares white America, and the appearance of another openly racist preacher made it even scarier. On the YouTube excerpts that show an out of control Father Pfleger, it was bizarre to see a white demagogue putting on a black inner-city accent to mercilessly deride a white politician.

Even more disturbing was the action going on in the background, as choir members first began to clap, then jumped up and down with gleeful cheers as Pfleger's rant became more histrionic. Flashes of the O.J. verdict suddenly returned, when news cameras caught black Americans spontaneously erupting in joy for a blatant murderer. In an article for the New Yorker the following week, Harvard luminary Henry Louis Gates, Jr. began, "White Americans don't think blacks are wrong to believe O.J. is innocent. They think blacks are crazy." Gates didn't justify either side of the controversy but pointed out that the black community is very far from seeing everyday life the way whites do (even in small things -- of the top ten TV programs watched by whites and blacks have no overlap except one, Monday Night Football).

Ranting from the black pulpit is more than a sign of racial divide, or even of deepening de facto segregation. It exemplifies what Freud called "the return of the repressed." Or to put it in popular language, what you don't face will come back to haunt you. Barack Obama is the first presidential candidate who doesn't have to confront divisive bitterness over the Vietnam War, which managed to defeat John Kerry three decades after America gave up the conflict. It's taken that long for Vietnam not to haunt national consciousness. The same, sadly enough, can't be said about racism. The very fact that black and white America still look at each other across a high wall can't be denied.

Therefore, the main issue isn't whether Obama was right to quit his church. Nor does it matter deeply whether he made his decision out of political necessity, conscience, frayed loyalty to an old mentor, or religious conviction -- each no doubt played a part. Like it or not, the church where he felt most at home is a place of angry denunciation and inflammatory rhetoric. Racists will claim that their worst assumptions are justified; non-racists will view the situation more in sorrow than in anger. Yet the relevant issue is about healing. Obama didn't run as a racial candidate, but he has magnetized a racial debate.

Which is good in the larger picture. The return of the repressed is inevitable. Our hidden fear, anger, and resentment can come back in one of two ways, either as open fear, anger, and resentment, or as unfinished business that we want to heal. Obama is definitely on the healing side, and so are many in the younger generation, who long ago became used to interracial dating and color blindness in every area of life (except, possibly, moving to black neighborhoods). It's the rest of us, the older generation marked by a history of racial strife, who haven't forgiven history and let go of outworn stereotypes. Not surprisingly, this holds for older blacks like Rev. Wright as much as for older whites like Sen. Trent Lott.

Obama is right to call racism "backward looking." One wishes he had applied the same label to the sermons he heard in church much earlier than he has. Yet he's also being hugely optimistic. Now that racism has come to the fore as a political issue even more than the Iraq war, he runs the risk of losing on the basis of rancid memories from the past. What else can he do? It's better to speak out in a healing voice than to pretend that racism doesn't exist, or to throw blame at reactionary elements in society. Whether in defeat or victory, facing the return of the repressed head-on is a long overdue step in American politics.