Barack and the Reverend Wright. Judging and understanding, black and white
Carlton M. Caves
2008 March 29

Earlier this month the incendiary statements of Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, finally became such a problem that Obama could no longer brush off questions about them, so he gave a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday, March 18, to address those questions. I grabbed a copy of the speech off the internet just before I left Brisbane to visit my son for eleven days on the western Samoan island of Savai'i. Having read the speech on the plane, I'm composing this piece in Samoa, without access to response in the US or elsewhere.

In this speech, I believe we hear Obama speaking directly to us, employing just the right combination of mind and heart. The speech has two themes: judging with understanding; black and white. These two themes and Obama's carefully expressed thoughts on them strike a deep chord for me. It remains to be seen, I suppose, whether the chords I like to hear will resonate with the general population.

The first theme, judging with understanding, is the foundation for his discussion of Reverend Wright and his controversial statements. Obama does not hesitate to judge, making no bones that Reverend Wright's statements are unacceptable and counterproductive: "... the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country ... . Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive ... ." Yet he also makes it clear that he cannot disown Reverend Wright, that he and we must try to understand the complex African-American experience that underlies Reverend Wright's ministry and his controversial statements. It is gratifying and surprising to hear a politician express this so clearly and thoughtfully.

The need to accompany judging with understanding captures the fundamental tension between those who are socially and culturally liberal and those who are socially conservative or fundamentalist. Social conservatives find it easy to judge, but hard to move on to understanding. They think that as soon as you start trying to understand the factors behind some unacceptable behavior---the root causes in old-fashioned lingo---you are headed down a slippery slope to tolerating, excusing, and finally justifying or endorsing the very behavior you started out rejecting. As Obama puts it in discussing his refusal to disown Reverend Wright: "Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable." But they are wrong. We can judge---criticize, reject, or even condemn---and still choose to try to understand. To do so is both wise and enabling. Rendering judgements without an accompanying effort at understanding is sterile and unproductive.

Social liberals generally act from a set of core principles that seek to maximize human well being, freedom, and dignity, principles that they believe must be reëxamined, refined, and extended in every generation. Social conservatives tend to view their belief system as a package of unchanging truths, the abandoning of any of which will lead to disintegration of the whole and to a descent into moral relativism and unacceptable behavior. They are thus extremely wary of trying to understand what lies behind behavior they reject, fearing that just the effort at understanding will introduce a crack in their belief system that will bring the whole structure crashing down.

Social conservatives are right that achieving real understanding sometimes leads one to change the original judgement, and when that happens, one has learned something valuable. The more usual situation is that understanding tempers a judgement, ensuring that the harshness of the judgement is calibrated appropriately, say, as criticism or rejection or condemnation. Most importantly, it is always true that real understanding informs a judgement, providing clues to how to change or avoid or reduce the behavior one finds objectionable.

A corollary of the social conservative's attitude is a tendency to view confrontation and punishment as the most effective ways to deal with unacceptable behavior, because they have no other cards to play. The goal of understanding is to develop a suite of strategies, which might include, but is by no means limited to, confrontation and punishment. If confrontation comes---and sometimes it must---a thorough understanding is the best way to manage the confrontation and make it as productive as possible. Would that the Bush gang had spent some time trying to understand how best to confront Islamic fundamentalism and the associated terrorism before plunging us into their unproductive adventure in Iraq.

Occasionally understanding leads to the realization that the only productive strategy requires long-term commitment and patience: have faith in the fundamental rightness of a cause, declare that rightness over and over again (that's called education), never give in, and trust in time to overcome. That's how steady progress was made on the racial issues that plagued and still plague America, and that brings us to the second theme of Obama's speech, the racial divide in America.

Obama calls attention to the steady progress on racial issues in America, and he is right to do so. For if America still has racial prejudice---and it does---it also has changed immeasurably for the better since the 1950s when I was a boy growing up in segregated Oklahoma. Individuals can change, and they did, when they were forced to confront their actions with the best of their beliefs, and the populace changes, as generations die and are replaced by new generations, with a chance to adopt the best of the past while avoiding its mistakes. And so there is progress, painfully slow sometimes, but progress nonetheless.

On the white side of the racial divide, the focus should now be on how far we have yet to go and how we can get there. On the black side, the focus should be on how far we have come and the opportunities this now makes available. On both sides, we should remember that the progress already made makes the task for our time easier than for those who went before us, and from this we can draw inspiration to push on toward the finish line.

Obama expands on this in two powerful paragraphs.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people, that the legacy of discrimination and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past, are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds---by investing in our schools and our communities, by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system, by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. ... it means taking full responsibility for our own lives---by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. They must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to speak to both sides of the racial divide. That by itself is not enough to make him the hands-down choice for president, for we have many other problems to be addressed, but it is an important consideration---important enough to loom large in deciding whom to vote for.

Addendum: 2008 April 29

What a difference a month can make.

The Reverend Wright's public appearances over the weekend and on Monday leave one wondering what he's thinking. His speech at the National Press Club on Monday, primping and narcissistic though it was, wasn't all bad, but the question-and-answer session after the speech was a disaster. Wright appears to have decided that if Obama were successful in his run for the presidency, that would devalue the anger that lies at the core of Wright's own American experience. And so he's decided to sink the candidacy of the only African-American who's ever had a chance to be president and along with it, to sink the hopes of those of us who see Obama as the agent of a genuine transformation of America.

All this puts Obama in an untenable position, but getting out of untenable positions is what politics is all about. The time for understanding has passed. The time for judging has arrived. Let's leave the understanding for someone who makes at least a little effort to deserve it.

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