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What is our responsibility as whites in the Rev. Wright issue?


To White Progressives

From One of Them

Please pass this on to whoever might benefit

These are my personal opinions, not those of any organization I am part of.


It is important for us to realize that as whites, we have been miseducated to be wary -- almost paranoid -- of black leadership. As a result, we frequently fail to grasp who our real friends are, and how much we owe them. Overwhelmed by the media's magnifying lens view of their flaws, we fail to stand up for them in the way that we should stand up for any ally - perhaps with criticism, but also with solidarity. And with a recognition of the agenda behind the attacks.

This is a very practical problem, especially this year.

This piece is not about Barack Obama. But it is predictable that Obama, if he is nominated by the Democrats, will experience attacks (and not just from Republicans) that have racial inflections. He will be accused, perhaps with vaguely plausible evidence, of actions related to black male stereotypes. Are you ready to see past those attacks, and to speak up, quickly enough to make a difference? Or will this fresh talented moderate politician, with real potential to pull together an effective coalition for positive change, be destroyed the same old way?

Right now, Obama must choose between his own interests and Rev. Wright, as an individual politician. That's his situation.

But his situation -- and a lot more -- depends to some extent on how much we allow ourselves again to be jerked around again by our prejudices. In fact, Obama is in the situation he is because white liberals and progressives didn't get what was going on and defend Rev. Wright. He could not defend his minister and mentor unless there were powerful white voices also doing so. And there were not. This is not to say that Obama agrees fully with Wright. I have no idea how much they agree. But the decision to separate himself from Wright was a political decision.

We live in a country where 98% of formal leaders are white, and African-American leaders in the media limelight are either hand-picked (as "good" or as "bad") or are the few tough enough and hungry enough to stay in the limelight. Even locally, we may not see grassroots African-American leadership at a particular moment. So it is very easy to forget how much every social justice movement, even every civic and neighborhood group, owes to African-American leadership.

All of us have benefited from the expanded democracy in this country since the 1950s. I'm not talking about electoral democracy, of course. There, we aren't doing so well. I'm talking about the increased comfort that most of us have with organizing and raising Cain when something goes wrong, from local plans to put in a landfill to gender discrimination in the workplace to an illegal war. This grassroots democracy, despite constant corporate pressure to restrict it, has had important impacts, from halting the nuclear industry for decades to enabling the fastest-growing antiwar movement in U.S. history to radically changing the position of battered women and developmentally disabled people.

In this country with no historical awareness, we tend to think of this as just "how we are."

But in the 1950s, most people in the USA had been cowed into making almost no protests. McCarthyism and complacency had almost completely stifled movements, like the labor movement, that had shaken the nation in the 1930s. From the movie studios to the schoolhouse, the atmosphere of fear was pervasive. As for movements of feminists, of gay people, or for the environment or against war, their members were numbered in the hundreds nationally. There were no local defenders of battered women, disabled people were as much in the closet as gays, and children were being indoctrinated for survivable nuclear war in our segregated and sexist schools. I have talked to older white activists who described the period in much the same terms that people talk of living under Franco or Stalin.

Very few of us whites fully grasp that it was working-class southern African-Americans that blazed the trail from that to increased democracy -- the trail that the rest of us have followed. There is a reason that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only US clergyperson known to all of us, and known globally. It's not because he was personally a saint -- he wasn't. It's because he came to be a symbol of the most powerful justice movement of our time, certainly in the US, and perhaps internationally. That civil rights movement, along with its sister movement, anticolonial revolt, shook not only Jim Crow, but all systems of unjust power, in ways that are still felt.

Yet even after that great historical lesson, too many white liberals and progressives have been willing to stand by while the leaders who stood up for their issues were attacked -- if those leaders happened to be African-American, and if they were less than perfect. (Which all leaders are.)


See if you can recognize this man. He risked his life working at the grassroots in the South for civil rights in his youth, facing as much risk as any GI in Vietnam. He then came to an urban area farther north, where he pressed successfully for expanded voting rights locally, and helped build effective community service organizations. He was among the first big city mayor to support gay and lesbian rights. He was pursued aggressively by federal law enforcement, which was however unable to find any financial or ethical wrongdoing. He was finally disgraced and arrested for a personal substance abuse problem, compounded by adultery -- a set of problems he shared with many other middle-aged male politicians. To most whites, he became a contemptible laughingstock.

Or this one. He is a minister in perhaps the USA's most liberal Christian denomination, which is mostly white. His church is one of the largest in the denomination, is racially integrated, and provides a wide range of services to people in the inner city. He served honorably in the US military. Though he has a large African-American following, and could have his own independent church, he has stuck with his denomination, including with its strong stance of welcoming gays and lesbians. Recently, for reasons having nothing to do with him personally, he has experienced a McCarthy style attack based on comments from his sermons taken out of context. Millions of whites have accepted the themes of the attack uncritically.


Martin Luther King, Marion Barry and Jeremiah Wright are/were not perfect human beings. But they were in the front lines of work that most white liberals and progressives claim to support -- not just for African-Americans, but for all of us. They clearly went beyond "black issues," when they did not have to, while maintaining mass African-American support. In fact, each faced criticism by more nationalist African-Americans for doing so, for working too closely with whites, for taking on issues like the Vietnam war and gay and lesbian rights.

Did we stand by them in their time of need?

Did we grasp that their personal failings were just an excuse, that the reason for the attacks was their role in the movement for justice? (Was Marion Barry the only adulterous substance abusing big city mayor? Is Rev. Wright the only preacher that damns America or believes 2 or 3 things you don't agree with?)

Were we willing to forgive them for the occasional error to the degree we would forgive a Ted Kennedy or an Al Gore, people who have been near the center of power their whole lives and really have done and risked so little? Were we willing to point out the hypocrisy of the attackers, who were real purveyors of addiction, real merchants of hate?

Did we defend them as we did Bill Clinton, who was unfairly attacked by the right wing, but who had himself buckled to the right wing by ending welfare, bombing Iraq, and standing idly by while Big Finance ramped up its ravaging of working people?

Those who attacked King and Barry and Wright, the J. Edgar Hoovers and Karl Roves and Fox News, knew exactly what they were doing. Every leader has flaws, but whites will automatically tend to magnify those of African-American leaders. Made nervous about those flaws, we tend not to defend them. Failing to defend them, we weaken our coalition and strengthen the coalition of racism, corporate power, and ignorance.

The attackers seek to restore the cynicism and intimidation of the 1950s. We must repair our blind spot towards African American leadership, or the attackers will succeed again next time.

We whites will never totally lose that feeling of knowing better, the unconscious sense of being superior as a white person, of being the center of the rational universe. But we must work hard to overcome its impact on our behavior. It is self-destructive to fail to recognize your own allies and defend them (with reservations if necessary). When King's support flagged and he was killed, Bobby Kennedy was next. When Marion Barry was successfully disgraced, Bill Clinton was next. The words of German pastor Niemoller are a moral lesson, but they are also a very practical one.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me--

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

African-Americans have been speaking out for themselves, but also for your basic values, for centuries. Let's hear some loud white voices -- right away -- against the next smear campaign of an African-American leader for social justice. You don't have to like him or her; you just have to understand Niemoller's lesson. By the time you find someone nice enough for you to feel comfortable defending, the battle will be over. The next time they come for a Rev. Wright, don't wait to speak out.

Larry Yates




"...in these times of storm and stress, this program will be opposed. Our Movement, therefore, must be well knit together. It must have moral and spiritual vision, understanding, and wisdom."

A. Philip Randolph, March on Washington Movement, 1942


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Larry Yates
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