Essay by Tom Gregg       March 20, 2008


Guilt by Association? Certainly!

Barack Obama’s problems with his racist preacher have shed a revealing light on one of America’s most troubling phenomena: radical black separatism masquerading as religion. Listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s tirades, it might seem incredible that the man is actually a minister of the United Church of Christ. It’s hard to see what such pleasantries as “God damn America” and “the U.S. of K.K.K.A.” have to do with Christian witness. Certainly I’ve never heard anything remotely like it in all my years of attending Catholic Mass.

When pressed on the subject of Rev. Wright’s vicious homilies, nervous supporters of Senator Obama have taken to mumbling that white people, after all, do not understand the “black religious experience.” Black people are the victims of a unique historical injustice: slavery. Unlike the rest of America, they did not arrive here voluntarily but were snatched from the bosom of Mother Africa and transported across the seas to be auctioned off like draft animals. Religious firebrands like Wright, they argue, are byproducts of this unprecedented historical crime.

This familiar and somewhat threadbare narrative begs a couple of questions. First, where are the black Africans who were kidnapped and sold into slavery? They’re all dead, of course, as are all the slavers, slave owners, abolitionists and everyone else who lived through slave times. American slavery belongs, thank God, to history. And while it may be true that contemporary black Americans suffer from the residual effects of slavery, they’re not the ones who were actually kidnapped, transported, whipped, abused and sold. But the ideology of black separatism and the rhetoric of people like Rev. Wright are artfully crafted to obscure that fact.

Second, is it indeed true that most of white America descends from jolly immigrants who shook the dust of the Old Country from their feet and set off to build a better life in the New World?

Consider the origins of Irish America. Between 1845 and 1852, repeated failures of the potato crop and the resulting famine killed more than a million Irish peasants and sent another million and a half fleeing across the sea to America. In those years the population of Ireland shrank by an astonishing twenty to twenty-five percent. On the voyage to America, Irish immigrants experienced conditions that rivaled the horrors of the Middle Passage. Aboard the so-called coffin ships that brought many of them to America, mortality rates exceeding thirty percent were common.

When they arrived in America, the Irish were treated with suspicion and dislike by the native population. Discrimination was widespread and unabashed: signs reading “Dogs and Irish Keep Out” were common in Boston and New York in the early years of the diaspora. Discrimination against Irish Catholic Americans persisted well into the twentieth century surviving, long enough to play a role in the church-state controversy surrounding John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid.

(For the definitive account of the famine and the Irish diaspora, see The Great Hunger by Cecil Blanche Fitzgerald Woodham-Smith.)

Such were the tragic origins of Irish America. And other immigrant groups—the Germans, the Poles, the Jews—could tell their own tales of oppression, persecution, pogroms and related horrors. Yet these stories, though not forgotten, have for the most part been consigned to history. I myself happen to be an American of Irish descent. My father’s people came to this country in the 1840s—fleeing the famine. My mother’s family arrived later—fleeing the Troubles that convulsed Ireland in the years prior to the establishment of the Free State in 1922. I suppose if I wanted to regard myself as a pitiful victim of the past, history could provide me with plenty of support.

Regarding Jeremiah Wright, the excuse has been offered that as black man who grew up in an America where segregation was still a fact of life, he is entitled to his anger. While this may indeed explain his behavior, it’s no excuse for hate speech. But unfortunately for his presidential aspirations, Barack Obama seems to accept the excuse. How Wright, whose soul has been so disfigured by anger and hatred, can be held up as a black role model is something of a mystery to me. Yet clearly Obama regards him as such. He has even gone so far as to call Wright his spiritual mentor.

If John McCain were to describe, say, Pat Robertson as his spiritual mentor, the editorial board of the New York Times would toss a blood clots. But Barack Obama is black. His long and intimate association with the unsavory Wright is a fact that the Times and the rest of the mainstream media would greatly prefer to overlook. Thus their rapturous reception of the candidate’s speech explaining away his association with the odious pastor. It’s a harmful double standard that injures black pride while stoking white resentment, and it exists in part because of the malign influence of people like Wright.

The truth is that Jeremiah Wright is an all-too-typical specimen of the type that has bedeviled the black community since the civil rights era: the race-baiting con man in a clerical collar. Whatever good work his church may do in the community, Wright’s fascistic demagoguery cancels it out. A prime example of his malign influence may be detected in the comments of Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle. It’s pretty clear now why she carries such a queen-sized chip on her shoulder. Wright whittled it for her. Michelle Obama may be a privileged yuppie with a high-priced education and a six-figure income, but Wright’s rhetoric has conditioned her to regard herself as a downtrodden victim of the “rich white people” who keep racism alive.

In the end, however, the worst offense given by Wright is to history. People like him are not laboring to keep historical memories alive, which would be a worthy objective. On the contrary, their rhetoric is designed to galvanize the corpse of an historical grievance that should have been laid to rest long ago. His brand of radical black separatism is an extended exercise in contempt: contempt for America, contempt for “white people,” contempt for historical truth—and above all, contempt for the flesh-and-blood victims of slavery. Remember them, for they were the ones who actually suffered the pain that Jeremiah, Michelle and Barack have so casually appropriated for their own purposes.


Copyright © 2008 by Thomas M. Gregg