Local Vocal: Obama’s affiliation with Wright sours opinion

by Wes Isley

At dinner the other night with another couple, the conversation turned to Barack Obama’s speech on race in the wake of controversial comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. What I heard from my friends was surprising. Here were two staunch Democrats admitting that Obama’s affiliation with Wright had so soured their opinion of him that they were considering a vote for John McCain (if Hillary Clinton doesn’t get the nomination).

Perhaps I should say that we’re all white, liberal and, perhaps most importantly, convinced that we’ve grown far beyond our roots in the struggling, rural Southern middle class. My friends’ political party switcheroo left me thinking that there is a double standard at work in this latest debate on race, one that Obama and the black community hasn’t even considered. Yet it may be one of our greatest obstacles yet on the path to true racial equality.

If my well-educated, well-traveled and supposedly cosmopolitan friends were having doubts about Obama, consider what whites in less fortunate circumstances were feeling. Imagine if Obama were white and attended some hellfire-and-brimstone church where the pastor railed against women in leadership and homosexuals, and trotted out all manner of conspiracy theories about the US government as if they were fact. In this scenario, I’m convinced the Democratic party would abandon such a candidate, and the media would brand the guy an ignorant hick.

But because Obama is biracial, he’s been given a pass. We’re told that the Rev. Wright’s comments must be heard in the correct context, with the proper racial history, and they would all make sense. This sounds suspiciously like the arguments used by some whites who say flying the Confederate flag is simply a matter of heritage.

I was fortunate to grow up after desegregation, so I’ve never known a world where whites and blacks are separate. But as a son of the South, I have plenty of relatives and friends who still chafe at some of the social changes they have witnessed over the last 50 years. Some still use the N-word. I’m not excusing their prejudice, but it occurred to me that whites have had to disown the very things that Obama, in his speech, has refused to give up.

In attempting to explain why he remains at his church, Obama reasoned that we all live in communities in which people exhibit contradictory behavior. But these same people are our families and pastors, he continued, and they have many good qualities, too. Therefore, Obama said, he could not possibly “disown” them. While I can appreciate his sentiment, I think many whites may see it as a double standard. How many of my relatives had to rethink their own allegiances as civil rights took hold? How many old-time pastors had to ratchet down their sermons as rural America changed? How many uncles or cousins distanced themselves from relatives with white supremacist leanings? Yet Obama is refusing to isolate the extreme elements in the black community, and I think that is a mistake that further stunts our growth toward a less racially divided nation.

While we can’t always choose our families or communities, we can choose to speak out against ignorance and prejudice. That’s what I try to do with my own relatives and friends. It makes for some awkward situations, but they at least know where I stand and often tone down their rhetoric or language when I’m around. Couldn’t Obama have done the same with his pastor?

As a gay man, I’ve also left behind friends, churches and communities that remained stuck in the past. These experiences were difficult and painful, but it was essential for me to leave in order for growth to take place. Was Obama prepared to overlook everything said by his pastor? And when does this become tacit approval?

Between the lines of Obama’s speech, I think some whites are hearing: “You wouldn’t understand. It’s a black thing.” If so, that’s racist. Just replace the word “black” with “white” if you’re unsure. We must get past this, on both sides. Just as the white community has had to disown poisonous elements of its heritage and history, so must the black community. It’s time to move past victimhood and anger. Even traditions that once nourished and protected can turn poisonous.

This next step toward racial equality is perhaps the most difficult of all, but it isn’t one you can legislate or desegregate. Obama said we must work together, but this particular step is one the black community must take on its own.

Wes Isley lives in Greensboro.