Sadly, primary is now about race
by Eugene Kane
Michelle Obama thinks people across the nation are tired of talking about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
She should take a look at some of my mail in Milwaukee. Or check out talk radio and the blogosphere.
Since videotapes of Wright’s controversial sermons made the news in March, it seems many people are fixated on the fact that Michelle’s husband – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama – attended a church with a preacher who made bold pronouncements from the pulpit about race and society. Wright became a spiritual adviser to the Obamas 20 years ago; he even married the couple and reportedly baptized their children.
With another important primary coming this week, Michelle Obama said last week on NBC’s “Today” show that “voters don’t want to hear about this division.” On several occasions recently, Obama distanced himself from his former preacher’s most incendiary words, but that wasn’t enough for some people.
(These are the same people, by the way, who never said a peep when former GOP presidential advisers like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell made their own controversial statements against specific groups of people.)
This week, the Indiana primary will determine whether Obama can overcome the shadow of his former preacher, who went on a barnstorming tour recently in which he provided even more negative attention for the Obama campaign.
It’s starting to make sense why President Bush never attended church regularly.
Wright appeared in several national forums, including a PBS interview and a National Press Club speech in Washington, D.C. His massive ego got the best of him during a question-and-answer session. Wright’s unwillingness to back off idiotic claims about the government using AIDS against black people or to soften his opinion that 9-11 was a justifiable response to American terrorism just made things worse for Obama.
I wrote in March about Wright and his connection to the oral tradition of black Baptist preachers I’ve known. But this is about more than just a black preacher in his element; now I think Wright is more concerned with defending his own honor, with little or no regard to how it affects Obama.
I’m worried about Wright’s impact because Obama is the first serious black candidate for president who represents the hopes and dreams for several generations of African-Americans as well as white Americans – just as Hillary Clinton does for women. I’ve had many e-mails and voice messages from folks who claim they can’t vote for Obama because of Wright.
I suspect few of them would have voted for Obama anyway, but now they have the perfect rationale.
In places like Milwaukee’s east side – a bastion of white liberals who always want to do the right thing in racial terms – there’s still lots of support for Obama. But after the Pennsylvania primary, it looks like Obama needs to start courting a more diverse group of Caucasians.
Surveys showed working-class whites without a college education, mainly male, largely rejected Obama in favor of Hillary Clinton. Some exit polls showed 19% of Pennsylvania residents said race was a large factor in how they voted.
When Democrats start playing the race card, it’s probably time to get worried.
Lest we forget, there was a time not too long ago when Obama’s presence on the national stage was a bright new shining light for race relations. He was the rare African-American candidate who didn’t demand white Americans assuage their racial guilt by voting for him. His biracial identity provided a fresh perspective on the black/white paradigm tied to slavery. In fact, Obama was an entirely different form of black politician in that he wasn’t the product of slavery, with his immigrant African black father and Kansan white mother.
On an Internet listserv for African-American journalists, there’s been much consternation about the media’s fixating on Wright while largely ignoring McCain’s ties to John Hagee, a radical clergyman who has expressed anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic views. Many believe it’s patently unfair to continue to link Obama to Wright, as though a black candidate’s relationship with his black preacher has anything to do with his ability to deal with world affairs or the economy.
Some of my east side white liberal friends seem almost embarrassed that the race between Clinton and Obama has become so bitter. Clinton is trying to tread the tightrope between legitimate criticism and playing to racial fears, sometimes not all that successfully. The cat is out of the bag; race does matter on the Democratic side, just as it does most everywhere else.
I have a wager with a friend on whether Obama will overcome his troubles and win the nomination. Almost all of those troubles are tied to his being a black man in America who has to confront how white America truly regards him. This election started out being about hope and promises for a new day but has devolved into the same old arguments about skin color.
It didn’t all start with a maverick preacher named Wright.