The event came and went to little fanfare, generating barely a ripple in the tide pool of what Rush Limbaugh derides as "our drive-by media." I'd like to take a stab at correcting that oversight here, because I consider it one of the more significant stories I've read in a while.
Last Friday a council of black church leaders called a press conference to address the inflammatory remarks by Rev. Wright, and Sen. Obama's response to same.* Far from condemning Wright or even amplifying on his remarks in a way that might have made them more palatable for America-at-large, the council threw its unequivocal support behind Wright's rancid sermons. Not only that—and here's the part that really makes one pause and reflect—the black clerics suggested that such rhetoric is commonplace in black churches; that there are Rev. Wrights spitting that kind of venom from pulpits all over America.
There was this typical comment from Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, director of the black church studies program at Brite Divinity School, where the conference took place. Addressing the largely white media in attendance, she said the controversy over Dr. Wright's sermons shows just how out-of-touch whites are with black religious life:
"It's news to you.... Now, for the very first time in history, mainline America, white America is finding out something about its black church."Let me make sure I've got this straight: The fact that we now know there's a "tradition" of virulent racism at black churches...is supposed to justify it? For two centuries in the South—I think Dr. Floyd-Thomas may have heard something about this—there was also a tradition called slavery. Did that make it OK? What especially kills me about the way Floyd-Thomas couches her remarks ("it's news to you"**) is that she puts the onus on "mainline America," making white society's ignorance of black ecclesiastical racism sound like further evidence of America's racist attitude towards blacks. It's as if she were saying, "If you really cared about us, you'd already know just how bigoted we are! God damn you!"
Bottom line, I had hoped that the council of churches might contextualize Wright's remarks for me, and they did. The context was this: "Rev. Wright speaks for all of us. If not in the specifics of the language he used, then certainly in his outlook and his rage." There was nothing about healing; it was about sharing a collective sense of Victimization.
We haven't talked about Victimization in a while. It's not the flavor-of-the-month (or decade, really) in the SHAMscape as a whole, which is heavily into Empowerment. But it remains alive and unwell in the demagoguery of those who maintain control of their constituencies by stoking an abiding sense of oppression. Even if all whites, tomorrow, were to begin embracing other races with a fellowship that white America (in fairness) has seldom shown, I'm not sure it would matter. As long as this element remains in power in the so-called black community, healing cannot and will not occur. Demagogues like Al Sharpton and even Jesse Jackson will work overtime to ensure that black America continues to feel cheated and disenfranchised.
And there's something else, too: the implication that the church enjoys some special dispensation from the canons of brotherhood and good taste that apply elsewhere in American society. That concerns me as very little else has in recent years, because people go to church in a relaxed, welcoming, uncritical state of mind. No pun intended, but worshipers put a lot of faith in what they hear in church, which they interpret as pristine: the word of God. The idea that black preachers are sowing the seeds of another generation of racism—and justifying that enterprise as some properly divine mission—is just too much. How can church leaders not see the damage they do in defending and perpetuating the Rev. Wright mindset?
For more than 40 years now, or ever since I first began reading about race relations, I've heard the phrase "institutionalized racism." I just didn't expect to find it in houses of worship, and hear it defended in front of major media, in 2008.
* I know, I promised I'd move on. What can I say? Try to bear with me. It just keeps getting "better."
** And I heard the press conference: She said it with exactly that intonation.