UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, Barack Obama denounced Wright's recent remarks and criticized him harshly. Read about it here.
One has to wonder about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. No doubt, he is angry, with some justification, about his treatment in the media, as decades of work and devotion have been compressed to seconds-long clips that emphasize a few extreme-sounding remarks. But he seems dedicated to firing back--or, speaking out--in a manner that it is politically harmful to the most famous member of his church: Barack Obama.
On Friday night, Wright appeared on Bill Moyers Journal and came across as thoughtful and provocative. Moyers played long excerpts of his controversial sermons, and Wright was able to explain some of his more inflammatory quotes ("God damn America" and 9/11 was the chickens "coming home to roost.") His explanations won't do much for voters who don't like angry black men. But when the context of the remarks are provided, they lose some of their edge. Wright's appearance on this PBS show was a net gain for Wright, and it did not seem to generate any political fallout for Obama. Then came Sunday night.
Speaking at an NAACP dinner in Detroit, Wright gave a fiery speech, noting that being different is not the same as being deficient, meaning that because blacks are different from whites they are not inferior. (As an example, Wright claimed that when it comes to music, blacks clap on different beats than whites.) In the speech, Wright mocked white attitudes toward blacks. He made fun of John Kennedy's Boston accent--particularly how Kennedy pronounced his most famous and inspiring line: "Ask not what your country...." He did so to make the point that black children who do not speak Middle-America English are no different from a president. Often breaking into a pretend "white" voice, he displayed a fair amount of disdain for white folks who fail to understand black folks.
Whether Wright was wrong or right, his message and his manner of delivery cut against Barack Obama's message and his style of communication. The Illinois senator has tried to transcend race--without ignoring race. That's a tough task for a black (or a black-and-white) guy running for president. And with a speech like this, Wright was not rendering the job any easier for Obama. Wright is making race the issue--and doing so in a way that plays into the white stereotypes of black leaders: angry and over the top. Wright is a reminder: Obama is black, Obama is black, Obama is black. And this is where he comes from. Politically, he's a weight upon Obama. That may not be fair. But--however he pronounced it--we all know what Kennedy said about fairness.
On Monday morning, Wright made it worse with a speech at the National Press Club. In his remarks, he explained what he called "the prophetic tradition" of the African-American church. Reprising the main theme of his Detroit speech, Wright noted that the "prophetic theology of the black church" is designed to free blacks from the notion that being different is being deficient. He noted that "black preaching" is different from "European-American preaching"--not "deficient." "Black learning styles," he said, are different from "European-American learning styles"--not "deficient." Correct or not on the specifics, Wright was emphasizing the differences between whites and blacks, Obama is trying to win the presidency by focusing on the prospect of Americans of various backgrounds coming together.
In this speech, Wright talked about more than race and religion. He assailed the Iraq war and blasted past GOP administrations for supporting apartheid and secret wars in Latin America. He boasted about the many social services his church has been providing people for years. He railed against the crack cocaine/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. But his common-sense criticisms and good deeds were not going to grab the spotlight. Instead, he handed his critics--and Obama's political foes--more ammunition.
When it came time for questions at the National Press Club, Wright was defiant, arguably arrogant, when asked about his more notorious comments. He did not explain his remarks calmly. Instead, he shot back hard. The criticisms of him, he declared, were "an attack on the black church." Playing to boisterous supporters in the audience, he declared, "If you think I'm gonna let you talk about my momma and her religious tradition...you have another thing coming." At one point, he appeared to suggest that HIV was created to spark a genocide against blacks. And he refused to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan, calling him "one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries." Wright downplayed Farrakhan's anti-Semitism, suggesting that the Nation of Islam leader has earned a bum rap on this front because he once criticized Zionism in a speech 20 years ago. (For the record, last November, Farrakhan blasted "satanic Jews" for running the entertainment industry.) Wright also declared, "Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery. And he did not make me this color." His fans in the audience cheered loudly.
With his remarks on Farrakhan, Wright was creating another headache for the candidate, will now face questions from reporters about Wright's factually challenged comments. And once again, Obama will have to distance himself from his former pastor.
At this point, any time Wright appears within the media, it will be bad news for Obama. "I'm his pastor," Wright proclaimed at the National Press Club, using the present tense. And with these appearances, he's keeping the Wright controversy in the present--and posing a continuing problem for Obama. Why is he doing so? That's between Wright and his God. Some Obama supporters might have thought--or, at least, hoped--that Wright would keep a low profile and that the Wright matter would peter out. But Wright has signaled he's not going anywhere. For as long as Obama is in the race, Wright will remain a cross for him to bear.