Pastor Wright: In Context

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Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).

Racism is still alive in America. Few would claim that racial prejudice against African-Americans, an enduring American shame, has been eliminated. Yet the explosion of criticism, mainly by white commentators, of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and of Senator Barack Obama for remaining his parishioner and friend, conveniently ignores the world of white racism in which Wright developed his ideas.

The focus on Wright and Obama has obscured the larger truth about the sermons he has presented: they resonated in the African-American community. Few of the self-righteous critics of Wright appear to care that they are also stamping a significant proportion of African-Americans as “appalling” (Cheney) or “anti-American” (Bill O’Reilly).

Let’s begin with Wright’s claim that the AIDS epidemic has been deliberately spread in the African-American population by the government. The use of African-Americans by government-sponsored researchers in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and in other similar examples of racist science, continued well into the 1960s. Wright’s claim about AIDS and the government, while both preposterous and without evidence, can be compared to other claims about government conspiracies against our national health.

In my own youth, conservatives routinely accused governments of poisoning America with fluoridation programs, occasionally bringing up the specter of communist plots. In my local newspaper, parents’ groups have recently raised the alarm about mercury in government-mandated vaccinations, with the more extreme voices claiming conspiracies. Plenty of Republicans of Wright’s age came to political maturity attacking the American government as full of spies and traitors, and some popular conservative voices, like Ann Coulter, are trying to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy and his anti-American form of patriotism. All these conspiracy theories are based in paranoia and misinformation, with this important exception: Wright knew that his government had secretly abused the health of African-Americans in the recent past.

African-American suspicion of white society and the American government is much broader than this myth about AIDS. Many African-Americans believe in what they call simply “The Plan,” an organized process of pushing poor African-Americans out of their urban neighborhoods to make way for profitable gentrification. This belief is not so much based on broad evidence as on interpreting a variety of local conflicts in the light of the long history of racism in the official treatment of African-Americans, such as racial profiling in law enforcement and the deliberate placement of highways, garbage treatment plants and other anti-social constructions in minority neighborhoods.

Certainly developers, real estate agents, and contractors are working together in many places to make money by gentrifying low-income city districts. The inevitable result is that African-American and other minorities will move out and whites will move in, the reversal of late 20th-century urban white flight. Because I read every day in my local newspaper about the corrupt process of awarding bids for building major projects in Illinois, it would not be too hard for me to believe that some or many local or state governments are in cahoots with moneyed interests to help them build or destroy wherever they want. I don’t even have to believe in an anti-black conspiracy.

As Wright was growing up, thousands of American towns and cities outside of the South would not allow African-Americans to remain after sunset, the so-called sundown towns. James W. Loewen has shown that hundreds of municipalities in Illinois remained all-white until the civil rights movement cast a harsh light on the unspoken practices of racism, North and South. Sundown towns represented racist government at the local level, tolerated by state and federal governments, although these rules were clearly unconstitutional.

I do not defend Wright’s assumption that the American government in the 21st century continues such racist practices. His claims from the pulpit are mistaken and inflammatory. They will not reduce racism but entrench it among whites and obscure from his listeners the real gains made over the past 40 years. But “un-American”? The pervasive racism that embittered and blinded Wright was un-American. His criticisms of America, not any harsher or more outrageous than those made by conservatives since World War II, need to be heard, not as the ranting of a crackpot, but as an expression of African-American feelings about white America.

Two best-selling novels have made me think again about what the daily public experience of violent American racism has meant to average people. Both Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs and Walter Mosley’s Cinnamon Kiss place the description of white racism in the 1950s and 1960s at the center of their narratives. Their plots are fiction, but the experiences were real for millions of African-Americans.

Barack Obama would be a different kind of President. He does not have to feel others’ pain. He has felt the lash of racism on his body his whole life, just as Jeremiah Wright has for decades longer. Unlike Wright, Obama seeks to heal rather than to condemn, as his historic speech in Philadelphia shows. That work can make all of us white Americans uncomfortable, whether or not we feel any personal responsibility for racism, past or present. Hoping to avoid once more a reckoning with America’s fundamental problems, conservatives are using Wright’s sermons as a pretext to attack Obama. And racism lives on.

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R.R. Hamilton - 4/20/2008

I wrote at somewhat greater length about the Afro-centric rewriting of the story of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment at

Just as you, I noted that the government did not "infect" anyone -- they were already infected.

Jon Marte - 4/19/2008

I also meant to say that the unhealthy leap is not justifiable by any amount of racism--real or imagined.

Jon Marte - 4/19/2008

In the Tuskegee Study, black men with syphilis were purposefully withheld any form of treatment for the disease even after treatment was discovered and perfected, their condition was hidden from them and continued on until 1972 when it was only stopped because its existance became known.

BUT the key difference between this and Reverend Wright's accusations about AIDS is that the US government did not infect the "participants" in the Tuskegee Study with syphilis, they already had it when they were put into the Study.

It is an unhealthy leap to assume that because the government would dispassionately and immorally study a group with a pre-existing syphilis infection that they would then actively infect a group with AIDS.

Jonathan Pine - 4/18/2008

The question as to whether he is an pastor or a politician is irrelevant since he is nothing more than a religious shake-down artist. After railing against the white establishment all his life he is now retiring to a 1.3 million dollar home in the Tinsley Park area next to an elitist golf course in a rich all-white neighborhood. Naturally, the property was paid for by his "thin flock" who tithed away the little money they had to pay it. Yes, it's great to be a shake-down artist in America. Wright must pinch himself every day when he realizes his good fortune.

Jeffery Ewener - 4/16/2008

Again we see that nothing means anything out of the context in which it arises.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 4/15/2008

Rev. Wright is most definitely a racist and there should be no hesitation in calling him such.

His appalling scientific illiteracy regarding the history of AIDS, his resort to Afrocentric fantasies to explain the reasons for the rise and decline of cultures over time, and his cackling, Simple Simon explanations for human behavior are cartoonish and egregious.

Now that wasn't so hard, was it?

Carl Cunningham - 4/15/2008

I guess I don't understand why Pastor Wright's comments aren't considered racist. If a caucasian made any similar comment from the opposite perspective, it would indeed be considered racist, and in my opinion rightly so. But why aren't Pastor Wright's comments considered racist? Racism is something not possible by African Americans? I have never understood this. I thought we worked to have a racism free world.

Irene Solnik - 4/14/2008

Yes, he (Wright) grew up in an more openly prejudiced era than today. He also saw the country change, he received a good education, served as an equal in the Marine, and has the nerve to say "Gd damn America." Wright has fallen into the role of a victim; as such he blames all his problems on another group who has also suffered from discrimination, the Jews. I have no sympathy nor pity for this man. All I have to say to him is grow up and join the world buddy, life is not fair.

sebastion n. - 4/14/2008

When talking about Wright and his comments, the argument that's continuously made is that he grew up in a different time, America's History involving race relations between Blacks and Whites during his era are cited.

There is another issue however,that cannot be attributed to race relations between Blacks and Whites in America. That being his reprinting of the Pro- Hamas Article, which Reverend Wright not only reprinted in the church newsletter, but also renamed it to "A Fresh View of the Palestinian Struggle", terrorism is a fresh view? Hamas is a recognized terrorist organization, their charter calls for the killing of all Jews, no matter where they are.

Along with that article, there was another article he republished in the church newsletter, in an introduction to the article Wright refers to Israel as a state "the Palestinian muslim problem in the "state" of Israel" those quotation marks on the word state are put there by him.

As stated before, this is something that cannot be explained by citing race relations between Blacks and Whites.

Nancy REYES - 4/13/2008

There is a little difference between politics and being a pastor.
If Rev Wright was a politician, his remarks would be acceptable.

Then too, many pastors preach about societal inequalities and evils. Some even preach that our sins or America's sins will or have led to God's judgement.

The question is if Pastor Wright made these themes the center of his church's worship or not.

Most people go to church to learn about their relationship with the Lord and to worship God. An occasional sermon on social issues, the problems of our society, and our personal responsibility is part of Biblical teaching (Isaiah anyone?).

But the impression we are getting is that the political statement was the norm in Wright's church. Is this true? I don't know, but if it is, it means Wright is preaching politics, not God.

A second problem is the simplification of theology, pointing to "The other" as evil. This is disturbing even if it was only a single incident.

Finally, the press has ignored the many outreach ministries of Pastor Wright's church. This suggests that he did try to serve the Lord, not just preach anti white rhetoric.

Richard davis - 4/12/2008

The Rev Wright may claim many things, such as AIDS being introduced by the Federal Government, but saying it dose not make it so, especially when there is not a shred of evidence to the fact. The next logical assumption would be that the homosexual community was a target, and then the entire population of the US, as AIDS dose not care who it infects. Once we all figured out that the fluoridation of water was not going to kill anybody, the controversy stopped.

What, too, then, do you make of the gentrification of black neighborhoods that is ongoing, such in Chicago's Bronzeville or South Shore? Blacks are not leaving these neighborhoods, because they can't afford the space. In many cases they are leading the development. This suggestion on its own, I think, displays a bit of latent racism.

Finally, Barrack Obama is a typical Chicago politician. He is on the make, as we say here. Barrack Obama's lash of racism -- along with his wife Michelle's -- might have been applied, but softly. They are leading lives that can only be dreamed of by the racist society they both (along with Rev Wright) they claim has wronged them. Heal? Please. Read from the Audacity of Hope, Obama's book, and you will find that he seeks not to heal but to further divide. The problem with him, and I might say, too, the author of this article, is that you judge first on the color skin and not the content of character.

I think it's time to rehab and gentrify the old plantation, existent since the late 1960s. It's time that you let those doing the work "come on up" to the Big House.