Obama as Racial Litmus Test

Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright Photo Andrew Sullivan argues that America’s reaction to Barack Obama’s speech on race relations later today will tell us a lot about ourselves.

Today will be a crucial day. It will be a day when we will discover if America’s racial environment – and the emotions and feelings and anger and fears that it entails – can allow for a black man – with all that entails – to become president.

This is followed by a moving essay on the difficulties faced by minorities — specifically blacks and gays — in reconciling multiple cultural identities. As a straight, white guy, I’m sympathetic to the struggle even though I can’t truly understand it.

My position on the Jeremiah Wright controversy has been rather similar to Andrew’s. I’m willing to grant enormous latitude to how an older black man expresses himself on race relations, especially in the context of trying to inspire his community to better themselves. If a man with the natural gifts and relative privilege of Obama finds the man inspiring, one imagines that those with less cause for hope would, too.

At the same time, I reject the implicit suggestion that tolerance for the struggles of others requires ignoring our own interests at the ballot box. If Wright had, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, presented himself as a candidate for national office, my acceptance of his excesses would have vanished because of the radically changed context.

Because I believe Obama believes what he says about getting past our racial differences, I’ve concluded that he’s taken the good parts of Wright’s message and rejected the bad as the rantings of a “crazy old uncle.” But, surely, others are free to draw their own conclusions? We are, after all, talking about a man seeking the most powerful elective office on the planet.

Andrew’s post talks about his own struggles with how to deal with the “roughest edges of a gay subculture” and his desire to tolerate it while living outside it. It’s a personal choice and I can accept and even sympathize with it. At the same time, I’d predict that the first openly gay man to win national elective office won’t do it whilst campaigning in spikes and leather.

Joe Biden got into some hot water for gushing that Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” But that has in fact been a large part of Obama’s appeal. That he considers Wright a mentor is threatening to tarnish that image. That may be unfair. But democracy means that the people get to make that gut-level decision for themselves.

That Obama is facing this from the position of front runner, having won dozens of mostly white states against a white woman with all the conceivable institutional advantages, demonstrates how radically far we’ve come on the race relations front. If he ultimately fails because the public holds him to the same standards they would a white candidate, that’s progress, too.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2008, Democracy, Environment, LGBTQ Issues, Race and Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. rpk says:

    Or may be Obama’s defining claim, superior judgment to oppose the Iraq war, was just the natural reaction to American power as defined by Pastor Wright’s Black Liberation Theology. Maybe Obama is just practicing his stated claim that be polite, pleasant and not angry and whites will accept you. Problem is there is accumulating evidence that Obama was not only not ignorant of Wright’s views , he has adopted many of them as his own.

  2. oceanguy says:

    While Wright may use racial undertones to identify the oppressors and the oppressed, it is the Liberation Theology that he preaches that is the real issue. We do ourselves a great disservice to allow them to divert the issue to race.

    Examining and criticizing Wright’s sermons ought not to be an attack on African Americans but on the left wing ideology that girds that church.

  3. John425 says:

    You say: “I’m willing to grant enormous latitude to how an older black man expresses himself on race relations…”

    We part ways here- I object to the “God Damn America” comment. I object to the “government developed AIDS to kill blacks” comment. I object to “we created Pearl Harbor” comment and oh so many more of Wright’s rantings.

    Racism isn’t restricted to whites, FYI.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    There seems to be a time warp disconnect between last Friday and today.

    Over the weekend we had this release from the Obama campaign.

    The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation.

    but in todays speech, we get a bit of a different story.

    Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes.

    So which is it. Has Obama heard Wright say the controversial remarks or has he not? Maybe it’s something in the democratic presidential water, but I have a feeling that we are going to hear about this all depending on what the definition of ‘is’ is.

  5. Our Paul says:

    Well said, James…

    I would quibble only with the emphasized word:

    grant enormous latitude to how an older black man expresses himself on race relations, especially in the context of trying to inspire his community to better themselves.

    I see no reason to exclude the young proselytizer nor do I think such latitude should be granted only to pastors speaking from a pulpit.

    As for John425, he should spend some time contemplating the underlying racism that still grips this nation… Does he objects as vigorously to those sweet peas that rant about “Islamofacists” as to Pastor Wright’s comments?

    I view this brush fire about Obama and his Pastor as just another manifestation of the underlying racism existing in too many members of the Center Right, where the creed is “Love America”, and to criticize the country is a clear reason for condemnation…

  6. James Joyner says:

    I see no reason to exclude the young proselytizer

    There are still vestiges of racial discrimination, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to the Jim Crow era, let alone slavery. People my age and younger simply take for granted integrated schools, getting to sit wherever they want on the bus, walk in the front door of any restaurant or hotel they please, etc. I’m less inclined to be sympathetic to their whining than Wright’s legitimate outrage.

  7. John425 says:

    OurPaul asks me to contemplate the underlying racism… Short of an emasculated KKK, I don’t see whites actively planning genocide, and absent the Nation of Islam (Farrakhan) I don’t see black terror squads roaming at night.

    On the other hand- I do see and hear “Islamofascists” who DO want to kill me/you/us.

    I am of a generation who remembers a time in the late 50’s when I, and several others, on our first liberty from boot camp in San Antonio, all sat in a coffee shop anticipating a real burger and milkshake only to hear the waitress tell us she couldn’t serve us because of the one black guy in our group. He was in the uniform of our country and couldn’t buy a burger and shake. Those were/are searing memories.

    Racism, in all forms is abhorrent but is practiced everywhere. Dark skinned Latinos are discriminated against throughout Latin America.

    The Japanese are outright xenophobic, the Han Chinese are trying to dilute the ethnic Tibetans
    who are coincidentally in an uprising over that very issue.

    The French treatment of the dark skinned Algerians makes our sins look mild in comparison.

  8. Our Paul says:

    Once again, well said, James: “There are still vestiges of racial discrimination, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to the Jim Crow era”

    But, shall we tolerate these vestiges? And when should speech addressing racial discrimination be muted to fit the sensibilities of others? And, when the “older black men” start to die off, will it not be the younger men who will step forward?

    Do not the out of context snippets of Pastor Wright’s speeches that are flooding the air waves and the net remind you that only 8 years ago John McCain was tarred with having a black child?

    Is this the vestiges of racial discrimination, or an underlying ill that has to be vigorously confronted? And if it is to be confronted, who judges what is legitimate outrage or appropriate language?

    Full disclosure: I enjoyed and agreed with you initial post. My previous post, and this one is not to criticize, but the strengthen your original central arguments.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The racism I heard was not from the whites. Wright, believes as Cone taught and believe Jesus Christ was black, that blacks are the chosen people. That white people are the cause of all the problems in the world. “God damn the United States” are fighting words. If you do not like it here, get the f__k out. I won’t tolerate racial hate from whites, why should I tolerate it from blacks? I am not responsible for what happened 150 years ago. There have not been slaves in this country since Lincoln. And, for your information, Martin Luther King was a Republican. He did not preach hate. Wright is a left wing radical who spews hate of others with every sermon. Why does Wright not teach personal responsiblity? Speak out against drugs, unwed mothers and all else that ails the black community? If B. Hussein Obama is telling the truth, the Christ Wright brought him to is black and hates whites. I don’t think so.