As the Rev. Jeremiah Wright gleefully tours the airwaves, inflicting severe political damage with almost every utterance, he is proving that racism isn’t the only obstacle to a black president. That historic prize is almost within the grasp of one of the most talented politicians America has ever seen. Yet what seems most likely to frustrate Senator Barack Obama now is not white prejudice but the frivolity, egotism and pettiness of those who should be his most serious and dedicated supporters.
To criticize Mr. Wright is not to reject the black church, the speaking styles of black preachers, the aspirations of black children or the rhythms and tonalities of black music, as he seemed to suggest in his address to the N.A.A.C.P. last weekend. To reject his ideas about the origins of AIDS or the causes of 9/11 is not, as he puts it, to confuse “different” with “deficient.”
Yet his self-serving formulations seem to be approved by black leaders, if the audience response in Detroit provides any measure. And apparent approval reinforces doubts raised by the televised remarks of Mr. Wright in the minds of many Americans who might well vote for Mr. Obama but now wonder whether they know him.
Those Americans probably don’t care about the Democratic front-runner’s bowling skills, his dietary preferences or even his unusual name. What they do care about is his dedication to this nation’s great promise and his capacity to transcend the old bigotries that have disfigured us. What matters is whether he shares their deepest values and loyalties—whether his vision of America resembles theirs or not.
It was highly predictable that the most offensive quotations from Mr. Wright—selected and broadcast by the mass media—would be deployed to embarrass Mr. Obama as soon as he fulfilled his mission of derailing Senator Hillary Clinton. (It was, in fact, predicted in this space in January.) It was almost as predictable that when the moment arrived to choose between the aspirations of Mr. Obama and the bloviations of Mr. Wright, too many of America’s black leaders and pundits would feel obliged to defend the latter—no matter how indefensible and no matter what the cost.
So long as a religious or political leader sounds sufficiently “militant” and seems to outrage white people, he (or she) must be not only accepted and excused but celebrated. That is why Minister Louis Farrakhan—the Nation of Islam leader who shares responsibility for the conspiracy to murder Malcolm X and whose theology of hovering spaceships and evil big-headed scientists is highly eccentric, to be polite—enjoys fulsome admiration from the likes of Mr. Wright. That is why the Rev. Al Sharpton—who was paid and financed by Republican dirty tricksters in 2004—still somehow wields influence in the media and politics. And that is why Mr. Wright himself can insinuate that the government purposely invented AIDS, and claim that the brains of white and black children function differently (a notion that would rightly be dismissed as racist idiocy coming from a white academic or preacher).
Far more challenging, for any black statesman or minister, is being the leader who at his best hopes to lift America above racial, religious and ethnic paranoia on all sides—that is, to be Barack Obama.
Perhaps the most repulsive aspect of Mr. Wright’s sudden celebrity is that he has elevated himself by stepping on the head of his former parishioner. Charismatic and clever as he may be, his theories would not command two minutes of national airtime except for the remarkable rise of the Obama campaign. That he would not hesitate to ruin a young man who loved him like a father shows a deep flaw in his character, unredeemed by religious cant.
How Mr. Obama can escape his toxic mentor is not clear. His remarkable speech on our persistent racial divisions necessarily pierced the illusion of transcendence raised by his campaign, but then resurrected the possibility of perfecting our union. Recognizing the fallible humanity in Mr. Wright as in himself and the rest of us, he hesitated to enunciate a complete rejection. Now it may be too late.
But responsibility for the ruin of the Obama promise will not fall upon the Illinois senator alone. The enablers of Jeremiah Wright should ask themselves why they have collaborated in his self-promotion. If he truly wanted change, as he told the N.A.A.C.P., he would have maintained a wise silence, and they would not have offered him a platform. There is nothing new in this dispiriting display of bogus defiance. We’ve seen this show too many times already.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.