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Jeremiah Wright and America’s Continuing “Separate and Unequal” Societies
Rev. Wright is right—and Michelle as well. America continues to be dominated by powerful and wealthy white interests who use a system of white-skin privileges to control access to political and economic power. A white-controlled hierarchy that still maintains “separate and unequal” societies. A hierarchy camouflaged with white-trumpeted “integration” (only on their terms), and which is being threatened by the 2008 presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. A white-favored hierarchy that triggered riotous urban eruptions 60 years ago, and the insidious fallout continues to contaminate the lives of people at the bottom. America’s historic “separate and unequal” societies are still with us.
In 1968, after studying the 1967 urban riots in the United States, the President Lyndon Johnson-authorized Kerner Commission released a report indicting white America: “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood,” the report emphasized, “but what the Negro can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The Kerner Commission warned,
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
(Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, 1968, pages 1 and 2).
In 1998, an updated, more racially inclusive study revealed that the Kerner Commission’s prophesy had come to pass. This commemorative thirtieth anniversary update found,
“The private market has failed the inner city. The prison system is a symbol of discrimination. A class and racial breach is widening again as we begin the new millennium. . . . The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and minorities are suffering disproportionately.” (“Kerner Prophesy on Race Relations Came True, Report Says; Despite Progress, Foundation Finds Separate and Unequal Societies More Deeply Rooted,” by Michael A. Fletcher, The Washington Post, Mar. 1, 1998. See “The Millenium Breach: The American Dilemma, Richer and Poorer,” by Lynn A Curtis and Fred R. Harris, Executive Summary, Second Edition, 1998, The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation and The Corporation for What Works).
In 2008, the words of a prophet are finally heard again throughout the land. A prophet speaking truth to America’s “separate and unequal” white-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power: “What people have to put up with. Who cares about what a poor black man faces every day in a country and a culture controlled by white people.”
A prophet whose words were constantly and disdainfully reported and played like a broken record by mainstream media, guardians of America’s white-controlled hierarchy:
“It finally came to me within the last weeks, you’all, why so many folks are hittin’ on Barack Obama. He doesn’t fit the mold. He ain’t white. He ain’t rich. And he ain’t privileged. Hillary fits the the mold,” he declared. “Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color. Hillary,” he thundered as his mostly black congregation roared approval, “Hillary never had to worry about being pulled over in her car as a black man driving on the way.” (“Barack Obama Pastor Jeremiah Wright Black Jesus Hillary Nigg,” YouTube, Mar. 16, 2008)
A prophet exposing America’s white-favored “separate and unequal” societies before a knowing congregation: “Barack knows what it means to be a black man livin’ in a country and a culture controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger. Hillary has never had her people defined as non-persons! Hillary,” he shouted, “ain’t never had to work twice as hard to get accepted by the rich white folks who own everything, or to get a passing grade when you know you are smarter than the C student sittin’ in the White House.”
Members of this prophet’s congregation stood and clapped and responded also with knowing echoes and arm-length salutes. At one point, a man smiling broadly, even ran up behind him fleetingly and affectionately caressed his back. An animated Trinity United Church of Christ congregation, whose membership consisted of 87 people when he arrived in 1972, and grew to over 6,000 because of his “inflammatory” preaching.
A reviled not revered dominant media-portrayed “eye-brow-raising,” “militant, angry and threatening,” “fiery,” “inflammatory,” “controversial,” “provocative,” “offensive,” “turbulent,” “outrageous,” “notorious,” “incendiary,” “vitriolic,” “scandal[ous],” “harsh,” “racially charged,” “anti-American,” “hate speech”- filled prophet who proclaimed, “No! No! No! Not God bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens like less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.” (“Jeremiah Wright,” ABC News report aired on YouTube, Mar. 15, 2008; “Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America, U.S. to Blame for 9/11, by Brian Ross and Rehab El-Buri, abcNEWS, Mar 13, 2008).
Rev. Jeremiah Wright evidently exemplifies words of Jesus: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country.” (Matthew 13: 57). Wright was editorially hung rather than honored by mainstream media. And reflecting their collective and myopic view about race, most media closed debate to the status of race in America. MSNBC reporter Alex Johnson’s story, captioned “Controversial minister leaves Obama campaign,” began with, “Editor’s note: The article includes language some readers may consider inappropriate” [italics added]. The “inappropriate” language evidently included: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than those thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.”
Apparently more “inappropriate language” : “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is brought right back into our own front yards. (Mar. 14, 2008.)
What may be considered “inappropriate” here—and even obscene—is not this prophet’s language describing the crimes against humanity our government has committed and supported in our name and with our complicity, but the crimes themselves. Obviously, Rev. Wright’s offense is reminding us of America’s sinfulness not its greatness. A prophetic reminder that, if heeded, could lead to national introspection and confession and government-led initiatives and reconciliation—qualities upon which depend the fulfillment of “a more perfect union.”
A prophet whose sermons were judged so “inflammatory” that in an article Fox News cautioned readers, “Click here to hear an audio clip of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. WARNING: Contains offensive language.” The offensive language: “We’ve got more black men in prison than there are in college. . . . Racism is alive and well. Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.” More “offensive language”: “Fact number 3: America is still the number 1 killer in the world. . . . We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children. We put Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there.” Another “offensive” fact: “We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians. And branding anyone who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic.” (“Obama’s Spiritual Mentor May Put Church in Hot Water,” Mar. 12, 2008)
Rev. Wright’s so-called “offensive language” runs through his “ten facts,” another of which is: “We do not care if poor black and brown children cannot read, and kill each other senselessly. We abandoned the cities back in the 60’s when the riots started; and it really doesn’t matter what those natives do to each other. We gave up on them . . and poor people who live in the projects.” He declared, “We still put more money in the military than in medicine, more money in hate than humanitarian concerns. Everybody,” he asserted, “does not have access to healthcare . . . Listen up! If you are poor, black and elderly, forget it.” Prophetic words about today’s “separate and unequal” societies.
The “offensive language” in Rev. Wright’s final fact: “We are . . . selfish, arrogant . . .ignorant. We play at church and don’t try to make the kingdom that Jesus talked about a reality.” He roared at the end: “And! And! And! In light of these ten facts, God has got to be sick of this shit.” (“Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Message,” YouTube)
Rev. Wright reveals that profanity is not a four-letter word but a lack of caring that curses anyone’s dignity and human rights. He makes clear that morality is not about proper language but about people languishing—in America and in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Morality is not about lip service but about lies. “The government lied about a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And the connections between 9/11/01 and ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’” Rev. Wright declared. “The government lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq being a threat to US peace.” (“Barack Obama Pastor Jeremiah Wright is anti-American Racist, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News, aired on YouTube, Mar. 13, 2008).
What a commentary! The radically different reactions of mainstream media to a president’s lies and a prophet’s truths! And Michelle’s as well! Mrs. Obama was criticized by media for daring honesty: “For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country.” (“Michelle Obama Takes Heat for Saying She’s ‘Proud of My Country’ for the First Time,” by FoxNews.com, Feb. 18, 2008)
Rev. Wright is “anti-American”? On the contrary! Dr. James Jennings, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, writes,
“The criticisms leveled at Rev. Wright were attacks on democracy. Discourse about race, or about the injustices of America, are now considered unpatriotic in some circles. This is a way of prohibiting broad discourse and debate. Sadly,” Jennings says, “it is the media that feed this real injustice and keep the general public ignorant to the fact that such discussion can only help to strengthen society. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that many in the media are not even aware of the nation’s racial history, and certainly don’t reflect C. W. Mills’ ‘sociological imagination,’ in the sense of understanding the connections between politics, wealth, and struggles on behalf of democracy throughout U.S. history.” (personal e-mail, Apr. 12, 2008)
“Hate speech?” No! No! No! Hate speech is a Christian televangelist telling everyone that he and she are going to “burn in hell forever” if they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. “Hate speech” is televangelist Rod Parsley, “hailed as a spiritual advisor” by Senator John McCain, “call[ing] upon Christians to wage a ‘war’ against the ‘false religion’ of Islam with the aim of destroying it.” (“McCain’s Spiritual Guide: Destroy Islam,” by David Corn, Mother Jones, Mar. 12, 2008) “Hate speech” is found in a full-page New York Times ad, sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance and signed by 44 evangelical Christian leaders: it begins with,
“As evangelical Christians, we want to express our genuine friendship and love for the Jewish people.” And its bottom line: “It is out of our profound respect for Jewish people that we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them, and encourage others to do the same, for we believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the World.” (“THE GOSPEL AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE: AN EVANGELICAL STATEMENT,” Mar. 28, 2008) “Separate and unequal” societies of a white-controlled hierarchy operating a double standard.
Since children are America’s future, we do well to be strongly reminded that many of them, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, are stuck in the past—in “separate and unequal” societies. In a Milwaukee Journal editorial, Richard M. Lerner, Director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, writes that “America is still separate and unequal 40 years after Kerner.” He states that “structural racism, social factors that persist in dividing our nation on the basis of race, is a ubiquitous part of the American landscape,” and especially evident among “minority youth, who have made only limited progress since the March 1968 Kerner Commission report.” Lerner says, “The disparities paint a stunning portrait of inequality,” and cites them:
* In Wisconsin, a 2006 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice indicated that custody rates (per 100,000 youth) for Hispanics were more than six times greater, and for black youth were more than nine times greater than was the case for white youth. Nationally, black youth are referred to juvenile justice courts at a rate twice their proportion in the population.
* Black and Latino newborns in the United States today are 300% more likely to grow up in poverty than are white newborns. Poverty is a major basis of other facets of structural racism—affecting health, education, employment and ultimately feelings of hope for the future.
* The mortality rate for infants born to black mothers is more than twice as high as corresponding mortality rates for infants born to white mothers. If they live, black youth receive fewer primary care or mental health services than their white peers.
Dr. Lerner’s response to well-funded, so-called “neo-conservatives” whose mission is to market a “colorblind” society that does violence to reality: “We cannot deny the data or try to explain the facts away by claiming they reflect the outcomes of personal or cultural shortcomings.”
A member of the Eisenhower Foundation’s Advisory Board, he writes, “In its 40-year update of Kerner,” the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation found “that America earns a D+ in progress on race, poverty, crime and inequality. Nowhere,” he says, “is that finding made more evident than in the status of minority youth.” Taking a page from Rev. Wright’s sermons, Lerner declares, “Today’s political challenge is to speak forthrightly [italics added] about racial inequality and to no longer accept racial injustice. We must demand that our presidential candidates address racial disparities in the lives of our children and explain how they will create a socially just nation for all of America’s youth.” He then ends with a prophetic warning: “ ‘Liberty and justice for all’ must not remain [italics added] empty words for our nation’s children of color (Feb. 29, 2008. See also, “What We Can Do Together,” A Forty Year Update of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Preliminary Findings, The Eisenhower Foundation, March 2008).
In his “Introduction” to the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report, New York Times journalist Tom Wicker wrote prophetic words that apply today: the findings of the report “can only be a beginning because, patently, until the fact of white racism is admitted, it cannot conceivably be expunged.” (Report of National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.)
Standing outside her and Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, a young black woman responded, “No, I wouldn’t call it radical. I’d call it being black in America.” (“Obama’s Pastor: God Damn America—U.S. to Blame for 9/11, ABC News, aired on YouTube, Mar. 14, 2008)
It is not about being “radical” but about voicing reality. It is not about being “inflammatory” but about being oppressed. Not about being “incendiary” but about being incisive. Not “outrageous” but enraged. Not “anti-American” but pro-human. Not “hate speech” but love. Not “vitriolic” but prophetic. It is about the continuation of “separate and unequal” societies. Societies that call for acknowledgement and action.
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two research reports by the author are related to this article. One is Taking the ism Out of “Race” in the 21st Century: A Study of the Print Media’s Coverage of President Clinton’s National Dialogue on Race, Sage race relations abstracts, May 2002—with the full version of Taking the “ism” Out of Racism in the 21st Century . . . published by The William Monroe Trotter Institute, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Winter 2002. Yvonne Gomes-Santos contact person at email@example.com.
The other: Mainstream Media as Guardian of Racial Hierarchy: A Study of the Threat Posed by Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March, published by The William Monroe Trotter Institute, 1995.
Appreciation is expressed to Dr. James Jennings, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, for his invaluable contribution to Rev. Alberts’ understanding of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power. Dr. Jennings was Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute and provided editorial guidance for Rev. Alberts’ research reports.
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