Special Report

Obama and His Minister

Yes, we do need a national dialogue on race.

By 3.21.08

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Ever since Barack Obama delivered his much praised but inadequate race speech on Tuesday, the editorialists have been telling us how much we need a national dialogue on the subject.

Right. It's high time. So here's my contribution:

Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks about America were the worst things said about my adopted country since I came here from England in 1962. Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X are not in the same league as this champion of race hatred from Chicago. Imagine if Senator John McCain had for years been a member of a church where a white pastor said that blacks should go back to Africa where they came from. And McCain were to respond: Well, I disagree with his remarks and I reject what he said but I won't disassociate myself from him, because he has been so important to my life. McCain would be out of the race in the blink of an eye. Yet Obama has not felt the need to distance himself from Pastor Wright.

The New York Times has praised Obama's speech as a "profile in courage." That is baloney -- reflecting the gross double standard that has prevailed for decades on the subject of race. The underlying problem is that the liberals who still control so much of the debate quietly agree with much of what Wright said.

Here's my background on this. I came to America in the first place because I was enamored of New Orleans jazz. The best of the pioneers were almost all black. I wanted to meet these men, some of whom were still living when I first went to New Orleans. I wrote a book about a jazz clarinetist named George Lewis. He was not just black but dark black. There was no white mother or grandmother in his background.

One of the things he told me that I never forgot was that the worst discrimination he ever encountered in the city was from the light-skinned "Creoles," or mulattoes, who considered themselves superior to their darker-skinned brethren. If George played at their clubs and wanted a drink of water he was denied a regular glass but was told to drink out of a jam jar. Years later, in about 1995, I mentioned this little discussed aspect of race relations to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He gave me a look of recognition, smiled and said he knew exactly what George Lewis was talking about.

One lesson we might like to draw is that people with mixed-race background probably do find it harder to "go beyond" issues of race than those who are either black or white.

In my first dozen years in America, I was a conventional liberal. I remember exactly the moment when that began to change. A story in the Times-Picayune described the DeFunis case, which came before the Supreme Court in 1974. Marco DeFunis had sued the University of Washington Law School because their admission policy had promoted less qualified blacks over whites. I knew that this was un-American and contrary to the whole tradition of equality before the law. In the end, the case was declared moot because DeFunis was admitted anyway. Then, in 1978, the Court narrowly ruled in the Allan Bakke case that whites indeed could be discriminated against and equality before the law wasn't really the law after all.

Anti-white discrimination has been legal in this country for 30 years now, even though it is politically unpopular and goes down to defeat when voters are given a voice in the matter.

THE TRUTH IS THAT the African-American establishment benefits from the current system of affirmative action and racial preferences. They feel ennobled by their victim status. White liberals like this arrangement, too, because the cultivation of victimhood and the arousal of guilt feelings is their stock in trade -- practically their raison d'etre. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof sought to excuse Pastor Wright's mendacious claims that the U.S. government engineered HIV as a death-dealing weapon against blacks. Maybe 30 percent of blacks believe that, Kristof wrote, in extenuation. Perhaps it's time to expose the lies that black leaders spread within their own communities, and not excuse them.

When liberals tell us we need a debate about race what they mean is that they would like to hear no more about Pastor Wright (and indeed he appears to have been packed off to Africa for the duration).

Obama indicated in his speech that he understands how some whites are resentful of racial preferences. Indeed they are, and this liberal initiative is the principal cause of race conflict today. But does this really bother Obama? If it does, he should state forthrightly that the time for affirmative action is passed. Alternatively, he should say that blacks still need this legal privilege.

In all those Democratic debates, I don't think one journalist asked Obama to disclose his current thinking on this topic. But as recently as 2006, he was foursquare behind racial preferences. Geraldine Ferraro's comment that Obama has been the beneficiary of race even as he masquerades as its victim was on target. Obama's attempt to equate that comment with the outrages of the irreverent Wright was just further chicanery from him. Good for Geraldine for refusing to be equated with the "racist bigot," "spewing hatred" from Chicago.

Memo to George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert: Ask Obama if it's time to abandon racial preferences. And don't let him wriggle free. Tom Sowell has pointed out that Obama's voting record is entirely consistent with support for the "grievance culture" that Pastor Wright appeals to. Obama, in fact, "has been leading as much of a double life as Eliot Spitzer," Sowell added.

I JUST READ A MEALY-MOUTHED article by the Washington Post's Dan Balz ("Will the Answer Outlive the Questions?"). He quoted three "Democratic analysts" who point out that Wright's comments could hurt Obama in November. What was significant was that not one of these analysts went on the record. This shows that we do indeed need a debate about race. The real problem is that it's the liberals who don't want to debate it, probably because they know they would lose.

Prediction: This Obama episode will once more show how the new technology is transforming political debate. Balz conveyed in his piece that the Washington Post will be good soldiers and won't do anything more than absolutely necessary to upset the race industry, of which the Post is a part. But how could the web and the blogs and e-mail be controlled? That's what bothered Dan Balz.

"The danger," he wrote, as though he were already on the Obama team, "is that what might last are the images of his Chicago pastor -- edited and reedited into television ads, YouTube videos and an endless stream of e-mails delivered quietly into the computers of millions of Americans."

Delivered right into our homes! The good news is that the mainstream media no longer control the political debate. That indeed is the danger for Obama.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).