Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Racial Paranoia and Jeremiah Wright

By now, anyone who isn't aware of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's paranoid rants against America has probably been hiding in the same cave as Osama bin Laden. (I'd be willing to bet that bin Laden knows about them, too, if he's still alive.) The news is all over the web, so I won't waste your time by repeating it here. That's what Google searches are for.

What I would like to do, though, is to comment on several aspects of the controversy.

In Wright's latest speech, he asserted that criticism of him was tantamount to an attack on all black churches. What unmitigated arrogance! The idea that there might be African American pastors and church members who disagree with his paranoid statements doesn't seem to have occurred to him. In his exalted opinion of himself, he speaks for all black Americans, not just for some of them. I'll grant you, the black community seems to exhibit less diversity of thought than many other demographic groups, but the diversity is there, nevertheless.

Reverend Wright needs to spend time talking with conservative African American Christians such as Alan Keyes. I'm not sure whether Ward Connerly or Larry Elder consider themselves to be Christians, but they're definitely conservative African Americans. Having read the insightful things which they have written, I can just about guarantee that they do not share Reverend Wright's bleak and unpatriotic outlook on life.

Another African American who seems to understand racial issues a lot better than Reverend Wright is John L. Jackson, Jr. Mr. Jackson wrote a book entitled Racial Paranoia. I found that book at Barnes and Noble the other day, and I found it to be so fascinating that I read the entire book right there in the store.

Reverend Wright expressed the opinion that the U.S. government had created AIDS to destroy African Americans, as if black folks were the only people who had been killed by that disease! In his book, John L. Jackson, Jr. discusses that conspiracy theory, and he also discusses the conspiracy theory which followed Hurricane Katrina (to the effect that the government had planted a bomb in New Orleans' black neighborhood). Those are just a couple of examples of the type of paranoia demonstrated by putative black leaders such as Reverend Wright. In both cases, those theories seem to be politically motivated, with the obvious intention of portraying Republicans such as myself (and George Bush in particular) as evil people. (Never mind that it was a Republican named Abraham Lincoln who liberated them from slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation.)

Of course, racial paranoia isn't always politically motivated. Sometimes it's more personal. I could cite a number of examples from my own experiences here in Chicago and elsewhere. I have witnessed and been involved in incidents in which accusations of racism were made recklessly and without any factual basis other than the accusers' assumptions to the effect that the things which they found to be disagreeable must have been motivated by racism.

To my way of thinking, such accusations are a sign of racism on the part of the accuser, not on the part of the accused! The mere fact that a white man criticizes a black man for something does not constitute proof that the criticism is motivated by racism. The mere fact that a white man says "no" to a request for money from a black street beggar does not constitute proof that the white man is a racist.

Given a choice between hiring someone who takes criticism well or hiring a person to responds to any and all criticisms by saying, "You're just saying that because I'm black and you're white," who would you want to hire if you were currently looking for a new employee? The answer is obvious. In today's climate, in which accusations of racism seem to be made at the drop of a hat, hiring black folks can be seen, by some, as a very risky thing to do. So racial paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Knee jerk accusations of racism, in the absence of any substantive proof, are irresponsible and counterproductive. They foster the perception that African Americans do not take criticism very well at all. They foster the perception that African Americans think that the world owes them a living. And they foster resentment on the part of people who, in many cases, may have previously been sympathetic with the goals of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. They may even lead, in some cases, to a backlash which is ultimately harmful to the African American community.

I am particularly fascinated by the thesis of Racial Paranoia, as expressed by its subtitle: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. In essence, Jackson argues that racial paranoia actually increases as genuine episodes of white-against-black racism decrease. The reason, he argues, is that many African Americans are aware of the societal stigma which is attached these days to racist words and acts spoken and committed by white folks. White folks who have made racist statements or done racist things have often lost their jobs, and sometimes even more, as a result of their words or actions. Consequently, there are often lingering suspicions on the part of African Americans to the effect that racism never really went away --- it just went "underground".

There may be rare occasions in which such suspicions are justified by the facts, but the unsubstantiated nature of the suspicions makes it highly probable that there are many more instances in which such suspicions amount to little more than vicious slander.

Racial paranoia makes it virtually impossible for a white person to do anything to disprove accusations of racism. Such a person can vehemently state that he or she believes strongly in racial equality and the need for civil rights, and can even cite examples of incidents in which that person took a stand against racism --- but a person who is guilty of racial paranoia is so solidly attached to his or her assumptions that actual evidence is ignored whenever it contradicts those assumptions.

When you create a no-win situation for white folks who genuinely reject the racism of the past and who fervently desire to see the fulfillment of Martin Luther King, Jr.' s famous dream, it tends to create resentment among the very people who once counted themselves as your allies.

If you treat people as if they're guilty whether they're guilty or not, then you remove the incentive for them to do right and you create a strong incentive for them to do wrong. That just isn't very bright! Even if you aren't motivated by any sense of right and wrong, it's in your best interest to refrain from making accusations which are likely to diminish the number of your friends and allies.

But there are considerations which go beyond utilitarian concerns. The Golden Rule is a universally recognized rule of ethics which states that you should treat people as you would wish to be treated. What does that mean? Among other things, it means giving people the benefit of the doubt, if indeed a reasonable doubt exists. It means not accusing people of malevolent motivations when you have nothing more than vague suspicions on which to base such accusations.

People who do not act in accordance with the Golden Rule forfeit their own moral authority. If they aren't willing to treat other people with fairness, as they would wish to be treated, then they have no right to expect others to treat them fairly, either. In the case of civil rights issues, that isn't smart, because the Civil Rights movement never could have triumphed as it did without a general recognition on the part of numerous white Americans such as myself that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers had integrity and moral authority.

By casting a dark cloud over Barack Obama's campaign, Reverend Wright's intemperate words have diminished the likelihood that Barack Obama will be the first African American president of the United States. Is that really in the best interests of the black community, or in the best interests of Barack Obama? Wright doesn't seem to have given much thought to the likely consequences of his own actions. No wonder Barack Obama has been quick to criticize Reverend Wright publicly.

I was raised by parents who both taught me from a very early age that racism and racial discrimination were wrong. I was sympathetic with the goals of the Civil Rights movement. My heroes included men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Washington Carver (whose birthplace in Diamond, Missouri was just a short distance from my home town).

My father took our family to Carver's birthplace on two separate occasions, because he wanted us to know where he stood on the issue of race. Dad bragged about having run in a track meet with Dick Gregory, in a way which made it clear that he admired Mr. Gregory. My father served as the Chairman of the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights, and he took a stand against racial discrimination even though there really wasn't any great public pressure to do so (since there were very few black folks in my home town of Springfield, MO). He preached at an African American church (Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church) at the request of the Rev. Houston Montgomery, who later became a good friend of ours.

In short, I didn't admire my father in every respect, but I strongly admired his stand against racism, and I incorporated those values into my own beliefs.

I don't regret having done so, but I have come to realize, over the years, that the issues are more complex than I once realized. Yes, there are racists in this world. Some of them are white. But more than a few of them are black.

White racists are absolutely on the wrong track, but that doesn't mean that all of their criticisms of the black community are completely unfounded. Some African Americans are good people who are worthy of admiration on many levels, but there are also a lot of black people whose behavior could be accurately characterized as dysfunctional, antisocial and morally bankrupt.

In short, black folks and white folks have a lot in common with each other. Members of both groups have a lot of good qualities and a lot of bad qualities. It's important to praise praiseworthy things, but it's equally important to speak the truth about things which ought to appall us. That's the only way that we will ever move closer to the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream of a world in which men and women are judged according to the contents of their character.

Creating an atmosphere in which people of both races are free to speak honestly will go a long way towards ending the racial paranoia which currently characterizes large numbers of African Americans. It's disingenuous to claim that you want "dialog" about race, when what you really mean is that you want a one-sided monolog in which only black folks have a voice.

I am growing weary of African American leaders, such as Dr. Wright, who claim to believe that racial discrimination and racism are wrong, while simultaneously demonstrating through their words and actions that they are guilty of the very things they claim to abhor. The divisive and hostile words spoken by such people hinder the chances that we will ever overcome America's tragic legacy of racism.

UPDATE: Here's a link to a good article about the relationship between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.

To his credit, Obama has recently spoken out against Wright's conspiracy theories and anti-American words.

However, I can't help but observe that if John McCain's pastor had been an outspoken white supremacist, the chances of McCain ever been nominated or elected for president of the United States would be virtually nil, especially if McCain's relationship with that pastor had been as well-documented as Obama's relationship with Wright. Unless we wish to embrace double standards based on race --- in other words, racial discrimination --- we should hold Barack Obama to similar standards. Jeremiah Wright's views are every bit as racist and repugnant as any white supremacist's views.

Obama has claimed that he wasn't aware of Wright's paranoid views until very recently. How credible is that claim? Not very. In light of Wright's truculent response to criticism during the recent past, I find it likely that Wright made his views known to all of the members of his church on a fairly regular basis. The only way that Barack Obama could have been ignorant of those views would be if he had basically slept through most of the worship services, or stayed at home on those Sundays when such views were promoted from the pulpit. And if indeed he was ignorant of Wright's views, what does that say about his level of commitment to his church? Any way that one looks at it, the situation reflects poorly on his character.

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