This morning and yesterday I have been considering the extent to which 'the context' of Wright and others on the matter of race is owned by blackfolks. It is and it isn't. It is owned by the underdog, in his native gripe. It is also owned by the leader in American unity.
After some thought about VDH's criticism about context I realized two things that I have known but not said. The first is that whitefolks have every right to offer opinions about what they believe is the proper context for a discussion of race - they too have been handed a racial identity that is beyond their control and must wrestle with the American birth defect like anyone else. But in this case, and almost by definition, blackfolks' interest is more pressing.
The central issue of contention here is what exactly comprises a racist threat.
I have maintained from day one that Wright has done little more and little less than a class three racist offense. What he said was outrageous. In my view of things, what he has done about equivalent to the Don Imus 'nappy headed ho' statement. So for the sake of argument we could all agree that Wright is a racist. But if all we could do in America is point and yelp, we would be no closer to justice. Therefore to deal with the situation we must respond with more sophistication appropriate to the offense, which means that a threat assessment must be made. Exactly what kind of racist threat does Wright make.
Aside from the partisan noise against Obama accompanying this controversy, the question of Wright, his church and his laity has gone mostly unexamined here at Cobb. But what I honestly believe is that since we are dealing with blackfolks in a segregated community that their sense of racist threat assessment is calibrated at a different level, and is much more practiced than that of a white classics professor such as Victor Davis Hanson.
The precise example that came to my mind was the knowledge that I might use as a grandson of a sharecropper, growing up in rural Alabama. There would be a set of warnings I would have been taught for my own protection from white racism. As that grandfather black man, I cannot depend on the goodwill of whitefolks to guide my instructions to my son, it is my responsibility to defend my family the way I see fit. I am not bound to discuss and debate the finer points of xenophobic incitement with classics professors. And thusly I categorize a great deal of common knowledge blackfolks use in their own defense. This is the core of black righteousness on race and it is independent, it is part of black culture, and it is 'our' issue. When the grandson decides to go to college out of state, it is on him to determine the weight of his grandfather's admonitions on race. This is something African Americans do in every generation, but we are always positively responsive to the intentions of our grandparents. We understand their righteous motivations and in that context they are unassailable. We could no more disown them than we could disown America itself.
What America rightfully recognizes is the courage displayed by poor blackfolks who have resented and resisted the kind of racist bias which has dogged and undermined their chances. It is something we will continue to recognize as a very important type of our general support of the underdog. We have lionized the righteous anger and rage of that little guy and that story is burned in our memories embodied most endearingly in the myths and facts around Rosa Parks, and the youth of SNCC. We also realize, rightly that when more powerful people complain, they have an obligation to be courageous leaders and fighters for justice against all odds. Such are our memories of the facts and national myths about Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and John Brown.
In Wright's sermons we are faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, the South Side of Chicago does indeed represent some underdogs, but a church as a locus of political activism by a privileged class of blackfolks on behalf of the underprivileged has no business being the center of a national dialog. Obama's association makes it so in a political context, but the proper context for a discussion on race is an assessment of a racist threat, engagement and remediation. What Wright has done in my view is exactly what Obama and other insightful people have said - he has taken a static view of America and that view has poisoned the kind of view he as a responsible courageous leader and fighter for justice should do. He has taken the sharecropping grandfather's view, which is reasonable and acceptable within black culture from grandfather to grandson, but not for national dialog which will inevitably include classics professors, political pundits and actual civil rights attorneys. And, not for the church of a highly privileged congregation like a presidential candidate. Wright has not held up his end of the deal as a leader in American unity, and half of the country hasn't taken Obama's apologetics seriously.
Be that as it may, where national white commentators have gone wrong is in their assessment of the latent threat in Wright's racist message, which is exactly where national black commentators went wrong in their assessment of Don Imus, but also with Bill Bennett. The white commentators are wrong in their assessment of the threat because the black church and the role of preachers is somewhat opaque to them. Those black commentators were too, admittedly not regular listeners to Bennett or Imus. These are all cases of where the particular conflicts with the national agenda that it is presumed everybody is supposed to be on. Bennett was talking to the anti-abortion crowd, his mention of blacks was incidental. Black commentators thought it was central. Wright was talking to an Afrocentric crowd, his mention of America was incidental. It would be presumtuous and insulting to suggest that Afrocentrics require the scrutiny we give to hammerskins lest they foment violence and preach subversion. If TUCC has composed strictly of hard Afrocentrics, then I can see that. People are right to probe the depth of the link between Wright and the racial separatism of the NOI and hard Afrocentrics in that mix ought to get their share of heightened scrutiny. There's not much of a jump between that kind of crazy and that of the Seas of David. But I believe that the average TUCC parishioner sees Obama's politics as their highest aspiration. That is not subversive.
I think that it's necessary to spell out the distinctions here because black culture and very likely black culture within TUCC spreads the gamut from respect for the grandfather's diatribes to the grandson's love to the Christianity of Sojourner Truth to the existential dilemmas of Afrocentrics, and the chronic underdog status of the black underclass, to the stoic dignity of Rosa Parks, to the prideful black bourgieois traditions or race-raising to the opportunistic yuppitude of Obama himself. You cannot instantly divine with what seriousness racist remarks are taken from black leaders to blackfolks. I remain confident that Wright has only damaged himself greatly and Obama somewhat, but nobody should take his influence over the racial attitudes of his parishioners as incitement. Blackfolks have generations of righteous race talk in the same way that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow and ice. If you really believe that blacks must be judged by the content of their individual character then it becomes clear how useless generic categorizations of Wright's contextual defenders are.
Inevitably, the American naltional leadership shared context is where we all have to be, and I am interested to see that kind of social amity take place. But it must be done with a healthy respect for the fact that such a consensus still does not exist, not even after a civil war and that we all do have private self-interests and traditions in how we communicate the lessons of race from generation to generation. Colorblindness is a failure. Multiculturalism is a failure. Black Power is a failure. What's next?