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By Steven Barnes


Sunday, March 23, 2008.


The recent flap over Reverend Wright is sad and understandable. Questioning Obama's judgement in attending the church is reasonable.


One might wonder:
1) Did he agree with Wright?
2) Didn't he have enough sense to know this would come back to haunt him?
3) Why was he attending a church where such attitudes existed?

These are reasonable, as I said. I would suggest that, were I Obama, based on what I have heard and read, my answers would be as follows:

1) No, I don't agree. But I understand his emotions, and they reflect the emotions of many blacks who consider themselves disenfranchised.

2) I don't make decisions in my personal life based upon their political impact.

3) One goes to church not for what you can get, but what you can give. If this is a congregation carrying such wounds that this rhetoric was an undercurrent, they need people like me to balance and contribute. Leaving would be self-serving: this is my community.

I have heard multiple people express that they simply can't understand the emotions expressed. Note that AGREEING with them, or APPROVING of them, is very different from UNDERSTANDING them.

If you can't understand them, my personal position is:

1) You are in denial about the historical status and treatment of blacks in America

2) You are in denial about the way human beings process negative emotions.

In other words, in some way you have concluded that black people are behaving in a different manner than whites would, given the same set of historical circumstances. Here are some comments I heard during the past few days.

1) Q: Slavery happened hundreds of years ago. Why don't they just get over it?

A: Ah...this one is so blind it's hard even to work through it. Slavery ended about 150 years ago. Jim Crow lasted until the 1940s, segregation didn't break down until the 1960s. That means that the majority of black people were raised by parents and grandparents who grew up in an America
where they were second-class citizens.

2) Q: But it's over now! Why can't they get over it.

A: Right. People just "get over" the things that happened to them in childhood, and cultures forget their past. This is why we celebrate the birth and death of a Jewish carpenter thousands of years ago. Why Jews celebrate Passover, why people raised during the Depression horde money, why countless people struggle through therapy trying to deal with abuse in their formative years.


Clearly, cultures and human beings have a memory for things that happened to them. Those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. However painful it may be to remember, cultural and genetic memory has a survival value.

3) Q: "God should Damn America"? How can you excuse that?

A: I don't. I understand it. There's a difference. That is a vomiting-up of centuries of pain and hurt, when saying something like that would get a black man killed. You can suppress that pain, but you can't destroy it. It has to be vented and processed.

4)Q: How do we know Obama doesn't feel the same way?

A: We don't, any more than we can "know" anything about what another human being feels. But if we take people at their words, and their words and actions, over time, tend to be in alignment, we can give the benefit of the doubt.


His books detail a fantastic struggle toward self-discovery, one that resonated. I don't believe he was "faking" all of that, lying about it. What seems to be true is that Obama has worked through a fantastic amount of this pain, more than most white people can believe exists within blacks as a result of our time here.


He has, for instance, worked through more of it than his wife Michelle. And certainly more than Reverend Wright. If he turns his back on every black person who expresses anger, he would have to associate with no black people at all. And if he dissociates himself from people who express anger, he would have no associates at all.

5)Q: What does Reverend Wright, Michelle Obama,  Spike Lee and other black folks have to be upset about when they are doing well?

A: So...if you're doing fine, but your sister is being raped next door, you should be cool with that? If you're fine, but your brother has been robbed and beaten, you'd be happy?


Of course not. So when individual black people are rich and successful, being confused about that anger implies to me a lack of extending your own humanity to them. You might disagree that things are "bad", but you should grasp clearly that, if they believe things are "bad", they are likely to be upset.

6)Q: Why are they so angry?

A: Anger is a mask over fear. Ask rather: what do they have to be afraid of? Look at incarceration rates, violent death statistics, and so forth. Look at a history of lynching and all-white juries. Many things have changed. But human beings have long, ugly memories. It takes generations to heal. When 90 percent of the black people born before 1960 are dead, I think we'll be pretty much past it. And perhaps, white racism will be a marginalized issue by the time 90 percent of the white people born before 1950 are dead. Nothing personal.

7)Q: But are you blaming black-on-black crime, high teenage pregnancy and drug addiction on white people?

A: No, I am saying that the disproportionate statistics regarding these things is the result of differential history and social disruption. This was created by slavery and the subsequent century of oppression. But black people must take responsibility for their communities and actions.


This is very similar to the fact that, yes, child abuse can produce emotional dysfunction leading to obesity, but it is the responsibility of the individual to heal themselves and get on with life. I have seen absolutely nothing from white people to impress me that they would have done a wee better under the same circumstances.

8) Q: But are you saying
America is a terrible country?

A: Me personally? Hell, no!
America is great! From my point of view, arguably the best country in the history of the world. But Americans are still the same jealous, bigoted, fearful human beings you find anywhere else, and you'd better believe that they can do terrible things and then say "who, me?" just like everyone else.


The more you've traveled, the more you study history and psychology, the more you realize that all of this crap is just the pale side of human nature. If this is your only frame of reference, you blame America, believing that there is some mythical land of equality and plenty where these things would never happen.


But blacks are hardly the only group that pulls this crap: women say "in this sexist culture." AARP says "In this youth-obsessed culture," the unbeautiful complain about "in this superficial culture" and so on. As if the rest of the world is better. It's roughly equivalent to screaming that your parents are "the worst in the world" when you are a testy teen. People talk that way.

9) Q: But black immigrants come over here from
Africa and the Caribbean and do better than American blacks. Doesn't that prove America isn't racist, and that American blacks are, well...confused?

A: Well, yeah, they're confused. And while it's our responsibility to get un-confused, it isn’t our fault. Immigrants of all kinds do better than natural born American citizens, on the average. And the further they come from, the better they do. Takes more energy and resources to get here--they tend to be above-average in the first place.


In the second place, they tend to see America as the promised land. They hold that mythology and hit the sidewalks ready to go. And they carry with them their cultural rules for success. The descendants of slaves are not immigrants. People like Michael Savage routinely seem to forget this.


We had our names, religion, lands, culture, leaders, personal power and language stripped away. What was left was a computer waiting for a program, and the program loaded into our memories was called "Three Quarters of a Human being."


We were domesticated, like turning a wolf into a dog. Anyone who resisted domestication were tortured or killed. Then after three hundred years of brainwashing, we were turned loose with few resources and no compensation, into a hostile culture where even nice white people tended to think we were...a little slow.

I counsel white people every week, whose damaged and conflicted programming has resulted in obesity, drug addiction, trashed marriages, homelessness and far more. We are awesomely vulnerable to that early programming.


To be quite honest, I have to believe that people who ask these questions have an underlying assumption: black people are different. If they didn’t have that presumption, they would be forced to ask: "under what circumstances would good, intelligent white people feel and behave in the same fashion?"


To tell you the truth, in my experience, liberals tend to ask "how are conditions different for black people" , and Conservatives tend to ask "how are black people different from us?"

Reverend Wright may be a damaged good, but I know a thousand Reverend Wrights. My family contains "Reverend Wrights" - good, intelligent people who grew up being told to love a country which, rather obviously, did not love them as much as it loved its fair-haired, blue-eyed children. If you grew up in a family where you believed your parents lavished affection on one sibling while beating or depriving or denigrating you, how will you feel? What will it do to your life?

Extrapolate that out to cultures and sub-cultures, and you may understand Reverend Wright's rant a bit better. Accurate? I think not. Understandable? Absolutely. And I honor Obama's refusal to throw him under the bus. And do not think it was "bad
judgement" to attend a church where, obviously, Obama's presence would have been a healing influence. Bad judgement
politically? Quite possibly.

I, for one, I’m glad that politics is not the most important thing to
Obama. It makes me happier to vote for him.


Steven Barnes is a best-selling novelist, television writer and art critic. His latest book, Great Sky Woman, is now on sale at AmazonHe blogs as Darkush.


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