Clarence B. Jones
is a former draft speechwriter for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and currently a scholar in residence/visiting professor at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University
In 1962, in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew on living with white racism in America. Published in The New Yorker magazine, it became part of a book titled
The Fire Next Time
. Its message was uncompromising:
A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time, a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
Cornel West writes that in this essay, Baldwin "spoke the deep truth that democratic individuality demands that white Americans give up their deliberate ignorance and willful blindness about the weight of white supremacy in America. Only then can a genuine democratic community emerge in America."
The reappearance of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in the national media - with a TV interview by Bill Moyers, broadcast Sunday; a weekend speech in Detroit at an NAACP conference of about 10,000; and his speech Monday at the National Press Club - has reignited this discussion and its impact on the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.
Rather than condemning Wright, I commend him for refocusing the issue of race in America within a more relevant contemporary framework: a conference on the role of the church in America. The church and its teaching of the Gospel of Christianity was the centerpiece of leadership provided by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was King's abiding faith in the ultimate decency and fairness of most of white America that enabled him to build a successful coalition for the elimination of institutional segregation and the most egregious forms of white supremacy and racism in the United States.
Everyone seems quick to blame or condemn Wright for the possible impact or "political" consequences of his remarks on Obama's candidacy. My view is that whatever those consequences may be, they are fundamentally a result of the pernicious 24/7 persistence of white racism. Most white people (and, perhaps, some African Americans) are uncomfortable with a public discourse about or a reminder of this reality.
Democratic primary voters have to decide whether Obama can address their concerns with high gas prices, rising foreclosures, absence of affordable health insurance, and the Iraq war. But the underlying issue, uncomfortably presented by Wright, is the reality of race relations in America.
That issue is the 800-pound gorilla in our national living room, which most politicians have been unwilling or too afraid to acknowledge or discuss.
The reactions of the media and political pundits to Wright's remarks are unambiguous reminders that white America remains seriously afflicted with amnesia with respect to its treatment of African Americans throughout most of our history.
It may be that America will look back at this election and conclude that we owe a great debt to Wright. However painful the rebirth and perfection of a new 21st-century America may seem now, ultimately he may be the unheralded, indeed unpopular, "hero" who enabled us to reembark on a new journey of recovery for social justice, initiated earlier by King, the greatest moral leader in our country in the 20th century.
The millions of white people who have voted for Obama in the primaries may be telling us something we are unable to hear. They just might be saying that, despite all of the negative media, the time has come to cross over to a new 21st century, a color/race-irrelevant and multiracial society.