Steven Waldman

As Barack Obama has begun focusing on the general election, he’s clearly spent some time contemplating how to reach voters who fear he’s a closeted lefty-black-radical.
His resignation from Trinity United Church of Christ last week will help but Sen. Obama left something important unsaid: it’s not just Rev. Jeremiah Wright or guest preacher the Rev. Michael Pfleger who are problematic, but the church itself.
Though Father Pfleger’s mean-spirited mocking of Hillary Clinton got the most attention (and got him suspended) what came just before was worse. He ridiculed all white people who say, “Don’t hold me responsible for what my ancestors did.” To the cheers of the congregation, he shouted, “But you have enjoyed the benefits of what your ancestors did! And unless you are ready to give up the benefits – throw away your 401 fund, throw away your trust fund, throw away all the money you put away in the company you walked into ’cause [of] your daddy and your granddaddy…unless you’re willing to give up the benefits, then you must be responsible for what you did in your generation.”
After he was done, the permanent minister, the Rev. Otis Moss III – whom Sen. Obama had recently described as “a wonderful young pastor” — declared, “Thank God for the message and thank God for the messenger.” Sen. Obama had previously implied that Mr. Wright held outdated views because he was of a different generation. Apparently, the next generation holds some similar views.
There’s a tremendous irony in all this for Sen. Obama. Mr. Wright scared voters in Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere into thinking Sen. Obama was a strident, anti-white radical who would misunderstand, or harm, white families. (In West Virginia, 51% of voters believed he shares the views of Mr. Wright.)
This misses the one fact about Barack Obama that is both stunningly obvious and yet still profoundly ignored: Sen. Obama is a black man raised by a white family. His African father was absent; he was reared by a white mom, white grandmother and white grandfather. When Sen. Obama looked across the breakfast table in the morning, he saw the same skin colors that the Clinton voters in Kentucky do.
Sen. Obama’s choice of church was tied up in his lifelong quest to balance the reality of his white family and his black skin. In “Dreams from My Father,” he writes, “Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle,” recalling his early journeys away from home. “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.”
This was not a binary choice between “acting white” or “acting black.” Each community he had a foot in had substrata, and for him, integrating the different communities became a crucial goal – almost as if to make himself whole he wanted an environment that integrated diverse personalities and ideologies.
Sen. Obama notes that Chicago’s black churches provided “an example of segregation’s hidden blessings, the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the laborer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.”
He quietly opposed but deeply understood the views of the black nationalists in his community. “A steady attack on the white race, the constant recitation of black people’s brutal experience in this country, served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair…..It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions – between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill.”
Sen. Obama’s claims to the contrary not withstanding, he was quite aware of Mr. Wright’s appeal to, and encouragement of, this separationist view – he quotes a sermon in which Mr. Wright declares “white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” But, for better or worse, Sen. Obama was less concerned with the substance of it than the preacher’s ability to bridge many communities. Describing his first encounter with Mr. Wright, he writes: “It was this capacious talent of his–this ability to hold together, if not reconcile, the conflicting strains of black experience–upon which Trinity’s success had ultimately been built.”
I suspect that part of Sen. Obama’s reluctance to separate from the views he clearly disagreed with was a simple cost-benefit calculation: the destructiveness of the ideology was outweighed by the value of Mr. Wright’s ability to pull together the “conflicting strains of black experience.”
In that sense, neither Obama-the-candidate nor his critics have fully articulated the real reason Sen. Obama stayed with the church as long as he did. It was not because he’s a secret Black Panther (he’s not), and if anything he gravitated to Trinity because of his own fears that he was too white. It’s also not because he was shocked – shocked! – to learn of the church’s radicalism (he wasn’t). It’s that Sen. Obama treasures unity above other values, and marveled at Trinity’s capacity to tie together disparate, often hostile groups into a single community.
What has changed is that Sen. Obama is now focused on a different, larger community. Whereas Mr. Wright was a unifying figure in one community, he and Trinity Church are powerfully divisive in the much larger community.
Sen. Obama’s racial journey – landing him as it did in Trinity Church — has surely caused him problems politically this year and will in the general election. But at the end of the day, Sen. Obama’s multiracial family is at the heart of his continual emphasis on unity, his formidable skill as a politician, and his historic capturing of the Democratic nomination.
Adapted from The Wall Street Journal Online

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