‘I wouldn’t call it radical – I’d call it being Black in America’

Old sermons by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, have caused a storm of outrage to sweep through the presidential campaign in the United States. It is really a storm of hypocrisy. The outrage should be saved for the conditions faced by African Americans, conditions that remain appalling long after the end of slavery and Jim Crow.

In one of the sermons, Wright says: “The government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”[1] An ABC news reporter asked parishioners whether they thought Wright’s views were extreme. One said: “He spoke the truth, he continues to speak the truth, and people can label that as radical, but I say it’s insightful.” Another said, “No, I wouldn’t call it radical, I’d call it being Black in America.”[2]

The United States Census tells us something about being Black in America. Black men are twice as likely as Whites and Hispanics not to finish high school, and Whites and Hispanics are twice as likely as Black men to graduate from university with a Bachelor’s degree or more. Unemployment for Black men is in double digits, twice that of Black and Hispanic men. For Black women, unemployment rates are more than twice that of White women. The poverty rate for Blacks in 2001 was 23 percent, compared to 8 percent for non-Hispanic Whites. Put this figure another way – one poor person in four in 2001 was Black, far in excess of their share of the population.[3]

The American prison system tells us something about being Black in America. Black men in America are more than six times as likely as White men to end up in prison. For White men in 2006, 487 out of every 100,000 were in jail. For Black men the figure was an appalling 3,042 per 100,000.[4] For young Black men, the figures go from appalling to barbaric. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time in prison.[5] Put this in the terms used earlier – for every 100,000 young black men in America, eleven thousand, one hundred and eleven are in prison. These numbers only hint at the terrible reality faced by these young people. American prisons are cauldrons of rape. In the first ever survey of sexual abuse in the prison system, the group Stop Prisoner Rape reported that in 2007 alone, approximately 60,500 inmates were “subjected to sexual abuse.”[6] “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”

These are the facts. But these facts notwithstanding, Wright’s comments have put Obama on the defensive. “I completely reject” them Obama told a town-hall meeting at a high school in Plainfield Indiana, March 15.[7] Obama is up against the racism in American society from a different front. The more his candidacy has emerged as a credible one, the more the campaign inside the Democratic Party has polarized on racial lines. Obama’s campaign has captured the hope of millions. But to get elected, he needs to speak to a section of the electorate that does not want to hear about America’s systemic racism – and that means distancing himself from Wright.

According to John Ibbitson, in the Globe and Mail, “in early primaries, Mr. Obama often took a majority of the White vote, or at least of White male voters; in Mississippi’s primary last week, Mr. Obama took 92 per cent of the Black vote but only 26 per cent of the White vote.”[8] These kinds of statistics will figure prominently in the selection of the Democratic standard bearer.

Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton can win enough delegates through the remaining primaries and caucuses, to secure the candidacy. Each will need to win over the non-elected delegates to the convention, the several hundred “super delegates” — party elders and full-timers – who will hold the balance of power. There is a real possibility that these super delegates will give the candidacy to Clinton, even if Obama has won more states, more delegates and more popular vote than her. There will be many of those super delegates open to an argument that a Black candidate cannot win the votes of substantial numbers of white American voters.

Obama’s campaign is in a double prison. First he is up against the deep racism of a society founded on slavery and only recently emerging from apartheid-like conditions in the American South, a society then that is deeply racist. Second, he is trapped inside a Democratic Party whose origins and history are dripping with that same racism. It was the Democratic Party “Dixiecrats” who for generations tried to preserve White privilege in post Civil War United States, the Democratic Party which has taken turns with the Republicans waging racist wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

But even if the campaign of one man inside an old, establishment party will not transform this grim reality, we need to angrily reject the indignant howls of those “offended” by the comments of Obama’s pastor. Let them learn from Wright to direct their rage against the prison system, the education system, and the economic system, which remain to this day stained top to bottom with racism.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Cited in Daniel Nasaw, “Controversial comments made by Rev Jeremiah Wright,” guardian.co.uk, March 18, 2008
[2] ABC News, “Obama’s Preacher: The Wright Message?” accessible on Youtube, www.youtube.com
[3] U.S. Census Bureau, “The Black Population in the United States: March 2002,” April 2003, www.census.gov
[4] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Prison Statistics: Summary findings,” www.ojp.usdoj.gov
[5] Editorial, “Prison Nation,” New York Times, March 10, 2008, www.nytimes.com
[6] Stop Prisoner Rape, “First Ever National Survey of Prisoners Shows Widespread Sexual Abuse in Detention,” press release, December 16, 2007, www.spr.org
[7] Tom Raum, “Obama Decries Racial Rhetoric,” Associated Press, March 16, 2008
[8] John Ibbitson, “Racial resentments threaten to split Democrats,” The Globe and Mail, March 18, 2008, p. A15