Sunday, March 23, 2008

Memphis' Race To The Finish Starts With Honesty

Here’s what we learned from the recent controversy regarding Barack Obama’s minister: too few white Americans have close black friends.

Otherwise, they would have heard it all before. And more.

Even if they don’t rachet up to the level of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric, it’s always clear that there is an emotional platform that every African-American shares. It gives birth to a range of feelings from a persistent sense of uneasiness to a palpable sense of pain.

Preaching The Gospel

If too few white Americans have interracial friendships, it’s obvious from the recent debate about Rev. Wright’s comments that even fewer whites have ever attended an African-American church. It’s impossible to claim an understanding of the black experience in the U.S. without doing this.

Frankly, in the context of this experience, it’s hard for us to argue that the sometimes incendiary, frequently angry and always therapeutic rhetoric of the African-American church isn’t justified. In a world where many African-Americans feel powerless to control their own lives, their ministers give voice to their frustrations and worries as well as give them the hope to deal with the hopelessness and despair that are frequently persistent their neighborhoods.

More often than not, the black church is home to a social gospel that calls on its members to serve others, to fight for their neighborhoods, to inspire youths with dreams for the future and to offer explanations that give an understanding of the realities faced by them. The ministers give meaning, they give hope and they are often the tenuous link between surviving and living.

No Mind Meld

It’s in this context that Sen. Obama’s membership in a United Church of Christ that has Rev. Wright in the pulpit makes perfect sense. It’s not just about scriptural interpretation or religious doctrine. Actually, it’s much more about social outreach, servant ministry and personal relationships.

With Sen. Obama’s background as a community organizer, it seems only natural that he was drawn to a minister and a church with a tradition of community outreach and neighborhood activism. Some of us here have done the same thing, joining a church for its social activism rather than a word-for-word agreement with the minister.

We think back to the days when United Methodist minister, Frank McRae, was well-known and outspoken in his liberal beliefs and grassroots programs at St. John’s United Methodist Church. In 1968, he was active in the movement of ministers who called for respect and dignity for city sanitation workers when they went out on strike.

Broadened Experiences

Sitting in a pew in his church Sunday after Sunday was Bob James, the right-wing former City Council member who believed the strike was part of a worldwide Communist conspiracy and was the only Council member to vote against a memorandum of understanding with the workers. To him, his church membership wasn’t about any disagreements with Rev. McRae. It was all about the personal relationship with his minister that reassured and strengthened him.

Only in the rarified world of political commentators are ministers and every member of their congregations supposed to walk in lock step through perhaps the world’s most varied religion, Christianity. This diversity is also a fact of life of the black church, and the recent attempt by the national media to understand it through the lens of politics is misguided and results in the distortion and simplistic conclusions that are so rampant in media commentary these days.

Here’s what to do if you really want a better understanding of the African-American church – attend one. You’ll understand how the church is equal parts sanctification and explanation. It’s not just about salvation, but it’s also bringing coherence to a society seen largely as incoherent when it comes to them.

The Magic Moment

Meanwhile, at a personal level, here’s how you know if you as a Caucasian have an honest, serious friendship across the racial divide. You’ve experienced “the moment,” the time when the level of trust has reached the point when your African-American friend reveals his deepest feelings and a vastly different view of the same world in which you both live.

It’s at that moment that you come to grips with the fact that it’s impossible to intellectualize, to empathize or to abstract the black experience. It’s hard to appreciate the fact that African-Americans, who, despite all the trappings of upper middle class success, still have moments when they feel like strangers in a strange land, when they feel like they are walking on eggshells or when they feel that they are playing a role in their business lives. Most of all, they feel adept at walking the tightrope that stretches between the two cultures in which they exist.

Many live with something approaching survivor’s guilt. It’s impossible for them to understand how they escaped from the suffocating urban conditions that trapped thousands of others. It’s equally difficult to find opportunities to talk about the challenging conditions facing too many African-Americans without alienating business associates and without being labeled in some negative way.

Race To The Finish

We’ve wrestled with issues of race since the founding of our city. After all, African-Americans defined our culture, our cuisine, our traditions and our civic character. Coupled with the fact that almost one out of every two people in this metro area – something not found in any other city with more than one million people – are now African-American, there’s no argument that anything characterizes our community more than its constant attention to black-white relations.

Now, it’s the nation’s time. Rev. Wright’s shocking comments and Sen. Obama’s eloquent exploration of the role of race in the U.S. have been a wake-up call for a nation that, unlike Memphis, seems unused to a conversation about our most difficult subject.

The hardest thing to do is to listen – really listen. As we learned in the reaction to Rev. Wright’s comments, too many people rush to shout and condemn, shutting off the prospects for serious discussion. While we weren’t shocked that a black minister in American would channel his anger at the inequities and unfairness inherent in our society into comments that might seem outrageous, we were shocked that there was so little interest in trying to understand their cause.


It’s a reminder of how unwelcome genuine honesty is in the “gotcha” media environment that exists today. It’s also a reminder of how much courage the founders of the recently announced Common Ground project in Memphis will need to succeed in their ambitious goals. As they begin, one thing is obvious: without a total commitment to honesty, this new process is destined to fall short.

But, if it’s done right, it can be a model for the rest of the nation. It’s hard to think of an American region where that would be more appropriate, and in our mind, unlike most of the U.S., the blunt racial conversation that we have had here for years could actually end up being a strength rather than a weakness.

Of course, the challenge to Common Ground is to get beyond the usual suspects, because too often, the same few hundred people who gather regularly to talk about race. Most of all, it has to explain how racial understanding is in our enlightened self-interest.

Competitive Tolerance

Most of all, tolerance is a competitive advantage in a global economy. It’s been clearly shown that two-thirds of college-educated young professionals pick where they live before they pick where they work, and increasingly, they are looking for a place where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they are looking for a place where tolerance is essential to the city’s character – tolerance in race, gender and sexual orientation. Memphis has many serious challenges facing it if it is to succeed in an increasingly complex world economy, but no challenge may prove harder than transforming ourselves into a city known for being tolerant and open.

Hopefully, if we do it right, more of us will be able to listen and understand the reality of the black experience, even when it’s framed in the sometimes disturbing words of Rev. Wright.


Anonymous said...

If you watch "The Wire" with any regularity, Rev Wright doesn't seem very controversial at all.

Obama took a gamble that may be paying off with his speech last week. Do we feel politics or do we think about politics? Obama bet we can think about politics. It is taking a few days for his speech to viral on youtube, but he has made up almost all the ground he lost to Clinton when this Wright flap started.

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother. We always want black people to be honest with us until they try to do it. Then we shut them down

bob said...

Here’s what to do if you really want a better understanding of the African-American church – attend one.

Good idea. And you might even like it. You can find more passion and involvement in one service at the relatively moderate Mississipi Boulevard than a month of Sundays at a "white" church.

Anonymous said...

Good post, too many white people don't want to listen, though. I tried to have this discussion easter Sunday of all times (I didn't start the conversation) with a relative and he ended up screaming at me. White people just don't want to hear it, which is why I think this speeech by Obama costs him the nomination. he is now the BLACK candidate.

Anonymous said...

An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy is a 1944 study of race relations authored by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal and funded by The Carnegie Foundation. The foundation chose Myrdal because it thought that as a non-American, he could offer a more unbiased opinion. Myrdal's volume, at nearly 1,500 pages, painstakingly detailed what he saw as obstacles to full participation in American society that were faced by African-Americans as of the 1940s. It sold over 100,000 copies and went through 25 printings before going into its second edition in 1965. It was enormously influential in how racial issues were viewed in the United States, and it was cited in the landmark Brown v. Board case "in general." The book was generally positive in its outlook on the future of race relations in America, taking the view that democracy would triumph over racism. In many ways it laid the groundwork for future policies of racial integration and affirmative action.

Myrdal saw a vicious cycle in which whites oppressed blacks, and then pointed to blacks' poor performance as reason for the oppression. The way out of this cycle, he argued, was to either cure whites of prejudice or improve the circumstances of blacks, which would then disprove whites' preconceived notions. Myrdal called this process the “principle of cumulation."

Anonymous said...

"White people just don't want to hear it"- Nobody wants to be held responsible for passively (or even actively) supporting a system that marginalizes a large number of people. Too many people would rather put their fingers in their ears and say "la, la, la, la" than think through the implications of of their actions. If you start making people think, they may not like realizing they aren't perfect and without blame.

Aaron said...

Barack got my vote. It's one of the most thoughtful speeches I have heard in a long time. Even my parents who have voted Republican for two decades see Barack as inspiring as the president of their youth-JFK.

With people like Van Jones leading the Green economy movement and someone like Barack to back him up- perhaps our future could be a bright and hopeful one. The meeting coming up this month at the Memphis convention center should be a historic event. Hope to see you all there!

Anonymous said...

Live in our world and then argue that Wright isn't right.

anti-socialist said...

It seems Barak Hussein Obama is either a liar who implicitly supported vile and vicious racism and anti-Americanism (and a nice dose of anti-semitism too!). Or he is a fool. It is especially disturbing that he subjected his daughters to such hatred and evidently thought doing so was ok. Apparently, spiritual street-cred was more important to him that right and wrong.

How sad that he didn't just outright reject all of this hatred, apologize for his 20 year association with it, and disassociate himself from the evil preacher.

Regardless, he is a marxist who was never going to get my vote. However, it's no surprise that leftists would embrace the "everybody does it" defense he asserted in his speech.

Hopefully, many independents voters will be thoroughly sickened by this hatred and will not want it remotely associated with the Presidency.

Anonymous said...

Right, anti-socialist. So where does John McCain get a free pass in soliciting, accepting and refusing to condemn support from the right-wing religious nutjob preachers? Praying for an attack on Iran to hasten Jesus' return??? The Catholic Church as the tool of satan??? John McCain lost MY vote with his pandering to those wingnut morons. And maybe Pastor Hagee should worry less about the Tribulation and more about skipping the dessert bar at Piccadilly.

Anonymous said...

Dear anti-socialist,
You are obviously a right-wing nut to think that Obama is a Marxist. Shades of McCarthyism. Please take your screed and go away.

Anonymous said...

wow "anti-socialist"! That's painful stuff to read! You should do some soul searching to figure out where all the anger and hatred has come from in your own life. Before making such inflammatory and thoughtless remarks you should read Obama's entire speech. The only potential downfall that Obama may succomb to is that he's too intelligent and thoughtful to be a politician. He's sees the world for what it is- a gray zone. People want simple black and white solutions and Obama recognizes that life, his own life is filled with contradictions that can co-exist together only separated by different life phases. If you can't get past the "either or or" paradigm then you are doomed to an endless loop of confusion and misunderstanding people. People are complex but it's so tempting to put each other in boxes so that we feel like we have control.

Obama provided us the context for why he remained in the church. I see him as a better man for remaining and tolerating his Pastors behavior and supporting his church dispite it's faults and dysfunctionality. For not leaving on a whim and perhaps bringing some moderate thinking to his church community.

Obama is being put through the ringer while our current president is trashing our economy and has placed us in a horrible predicament in Iraq. I voted for Bush 2 times and I am disgusted with his behavior and leadership. So there is a perfect contradiction. If you looked at my voting behavior you would call me a right wing nut. But given the proper context my vote made sense at the time. Now it's time for some fresh leadership and Obama provides that.

The Repubican party should be ashamed of itself right now. It's exploited the pro-life demographic while shamelessly ignoring the economy. McCain and Clinton are part of the elite establishment and have no clue what it means to be a struggling middleclass or poor American. Obama is the least elite of the three and has had some experience working with the poor.

Go Obama!

Smart City Consulting said...


In response to your post, we think of a former Memphis City Council member who said: I always resist the temptation to go into intellectual combat with an unarmed man.

We'll let your rantings pass on that basis.

anti-socialist said...

I'm not angry. As for McCain - he certainly isn't my first choice. To my knowledge though, he is not raising two daughters in a church filled with such vicious hatred.

If only BHO had spent 20 years associated with a ministry such as that of Jesse Lee Peterson. . .

As for SCM - I was not ranting, I was simply providing my observation. Suggesting I am intellectually unarmed is a puny ad hominem. I am refraining from making a personal attack against anyone with SCM though. It is not unreasonable to suspect that BHO is a marxist and a liar who implicitly supported racism and sedition stirring anti-American ranting from the pulpit.

Just because I disagree with much of the politics here does not mean smarter than me. However, I apologize for upsetting the echo chamber.

anti-socialist said...


I left out "you are" between "mean" and "smarter" in the last paragraph.

As an intellectually unarmed person, I often have trouble making complete sentences.

Anonymous said...

"It is not unreasonable to suspect that BHO is a marxist and a liar who implicitly supported racism and sedition stirring anti-American ranting from the pulpit."

Thanks for the laugh : ) I needed it.

anti-socialist said...

"Thanks for the laugh : ) I needed it."

You're welcome.

Anonymous said...

Please name the black preacher in Memphis who spews the vitriol that Wright does. I don't know of any.

Plenty have that same style; but I've never heard one telling his congregation that the Bible says God damn America. The problem isn't Wright's "style," it's his left-wing reflexive anti-Americanism.

Fifty years ago William F. Buckley worked successfully to rid the conservative movement of the looney right like the John Birch Society. Today, given the perfect opportunity to write Wright and his ilk out of polite liberal circles, Democrats like you instead make excuses for Wright, and tell us it's really our own fault anyway. No enemies on othe left. Well, keep talking. Lose yet another election. As with Jimmy Carter, the Democrats became so invested in Obama before they knew anything about him that now they're stuck with him, Wright and all. They've re-elected exactly one president in the last 65 years. And still they don't get it.