March 22, 2008
Just Under the Surface
[Quoting Melissa Harris-Lacewell.] “One of the things fascinating to me watching these responses to Jeremiah Wright is that white Americans find his beliefs so fringe or so extreme. When if you’ve spent time in black communities, they are not shared by everyone, but they are pretty common beliefs.” … What’s happening, I think, is that the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation — and they are thunderstruck.Speaking as a fully assimilated Negro, with a white boyfriend and a surfeit of white friends, living in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood, it’s hard for me to write about Obama’s speech. There’s a lingering note in Kristof’s column that threatens to narrow and polarize this conversation just as it begins — “You white folks just don’t get it.” Some even heard it in the speech itself, and it instantly deafened them to what was said; it sounds so much like assigning blame to non-blacks for something that they just cannot help. And for me, inhabiting the whitest world a black American man can inhabit, it’s even more awkward to say that the note rings true. From the severity of the reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s speeches, it seems that a large number of Americans, including many of my colleagues in the press, just had no idea.
In black communities, words like Wright’s are commonplace.
Those words you’re hearing over and over again on YouTube are not the rantings of a lunatic fringe, they are the frequent utterances of a sizable segment of black America. It’s just that this time they’ve spilled out of our closed conversation in a dramatic way.
As a reporter new to the city of Fresno, I went on a story- and source-finding mission one day in south Fresno, the hub for the city’s black community, located close to the city’s downtown. I started at a community center, interviewing the director of the center about the area — its characteristics, its history, etc. When I was finished speaking with him, I asked who else I should talk to, and then I went in search of the person he named. I repeated this with every person I interviewed until I began to recognize the names of the folks who were referred to me.
The stories people related portrayed a once-vibrant area desolated by the typical patterns of white flight. After World War II, whites had evacuated south Fresno for the suburbs. These new suburbanites drove the creation of a highway that severed south Fresno from downtown, devastating the area’s commerce and infrastructure. (You can view the Hinton Community Center on a map to get the picture.) When I left Fresno, the residents of south Fresno were thrilled about having finally gotten a grocery store in the neighborhood, and the new excitement was the installation of the area’s first ATM.
During one of my interviews in South Fresno, I found myself dropping in on a pair of gentlemen hanging out over their lunch hour. They were old friends who’d grown up together in the neighborhood, and my visit prompted them to reminisce. Before even half an hour had passed, they were laughingly recounting memories of hurling bottles and obscenities at whites who had the audacity to drive through their part of town.
I could have said, Do you realize you’re talking to a reporter? Are you honestly chuckling in front of me about having assaulted people? And most of all, Can’t you see any connection between these actions and attitudes and what has happened to this place?
But I didn’t. This was suddenly not a conversation between a reporter and his sources, it was a conversation between black people, between us. To voice any of my thoughts at that moment would have instantly changed the conversation’s dynamic to “me vs. them.” Furthermore, as a 23-year-old newcomer to Fresno, I had no place to question or judge their experience.
That’s what I heard in Obama’s words about Rev. Wright: “He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.” To sever or denigrate his relationship with the pastor would have meant lumping into the “them” category the large segment of black Americans who’ve expressed the same sentiments or worse. And this is key — those sentiments would not have lessened, only Obama’s access to such candor.
My story of a day in south Fresno is just one example out of many, in black hangouts in south St. Petersburg, at family gatherings in Chicago and DC. Such words are among the things you hear when white folks aren’t listening, along with a whole lot of funny stuff, smart stuff, self-critical stuff, the kinds of stuff Bill Cosby gets flack for saying out of school. And while you may cringe a little, you just don’t condemn the ignorant thoughts, the conspiracy theories, the exaggerations. Or at least I never have, and I’d never heard anyone else do so … until Tuesday.
That’s another thing that’s awkward about all this — I’m deeply implicated whenever you criticize Obama for not talking back to Rev. Wright, and so are most of the other black people I know. And I don’t even live in a black community, or attend a black church, or heck, go to the frickin’ barbershop. As a gay, Ivy-League-educated Minneapolitan, I’m much more at the fringes of the African-American experience than is Rev. Wright, and yet I easily dismiss his words as the types of casual utterances you constantly hear in semi-private gatherings. Imagine if I were a community organizer on the south side of Chicago.
But now one of the most respected members of the black community has involuntarily hauled these sentiments into the public square. And furthermore, he’s denounced them as morally wrong, factually incorrect and counterproductive. Crucially, he’s somehow done so in a way that does not close off his access to the conversation, but instead opens the discussion for all of us to take part.
For journalists, he offers an easily testable claim — “That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.” And as long as this speech remains a pressing topic — which events suggest might be a good while — the door is open to explore that claim. Some are even beginning to take that opportunity.
This, to me, is the essential power of the speech. It was not only an atonement and a maneuver, it was also an invitation. The opportunity is ripe to score the inevitable political points, and given that Obama was forced to some sort of gesture like this, he’s already lost those points. But the far greater opportunity is to hold a dialogue for the first time about the things all of us say and think in private, the notions that simmer just under the surface of our interactions.
I’d be naive to think there aren’t things I’d take issue with frequently said in private between members of other communities. Plus, it’s easily possible that these things I’ve written are actually fairly common knowledge. And there’s probably a ton about the reactions to Jeremiah Wright that I just don’t get.
But the real issue actually isn’t who gets what. It’s what we’re willing to talk about openly, now that the chance has arrived.