Monday, April 07, 2008

Wright Is Not What's Wrong

Photo of Rev. Jeremiah Wright in Chicago

I'm a little late in the game regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy. I've tried not to say anything about it, but the more I've thought about it the more I've wanted to weigh in. Here it is in a nutshell, as far as race in America goes, Rev. Wright is not what's wrong. However, the amount of ink spilled and airtime burned up in response to the sound bites of some of his sermons is an illustration of the psychologizing of racism that I described in a recent post. What happened regarding Wright from start of finish represents a post-modern version of a pre-modern social ritual, a public stoning. Here is how this works, an individual makes statements regarding race that are considered, at least by some, to be reprehensible. Various individuals and groups condemn the individual in every available media. Personal integrity itself is measured by whether or not you will also join in the condemnation (your very presidency could hang in the balance). This reaches a certain climax and then begins to recede, depending on the level of outrage the comments provoked. Then another individual makes similar statements and the whole cycle begins again. The problem with all of this is that it reflects the view that racism is about the thoughts or feelings of individuals (primarily psychological) and not about the distribution of power and resulting structural inequalities. I believe that the popularity of this public condemnation of allegedly "racist" individuals derives from the psychological payoff to those who participate, namely a sense of moral superiority or legitimacy. It becomes a part of one's "anti-racist" or "pro-American" or "uniter not divider" resume. The question is whether it actually addresses the real problem which is power and inequality. My point is not that people should be silent in the face of comments considered outrageous, oppressive etc. My point is that we should be careful not to confuse the ritualized, psychologized version of challenging such statements with meaningful action regarding race/racism. One really good policy is worth a thousand condemnations of individuals whatever they say. Ideally, the comments of individuals can be used to focus attention on how they may be a symptom of social structures and the need to change them. If the attention focused on Rev. Wright's comments over the past few weeks have that effect, then it would be much more valuable than discussing whether or not he is a "good person". I'll leave that judgment to God.

"When perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty. The dignity and equality of every servant of God will be acknowledged; the ideal of the solidarity of the human race, the true brotherhood of man, will be realized; and the glorious light of the Sun of Truth will illumine the souls of all men."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 154)