Wright, Race and Contested Stories

Gershom Gorenberg

If you want to understand why Rev. Jeremiah Wright said the US government invented Aids, or what Barack Obama sought to accomplish in his Philadelphia speech on race, the best commentary is political scientist Marc Howard Ross’s book “Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict” – even if it never mentions Obama or Wright.

I described Ross’s book in my recent American Prospect piece about the smears against on Robert Malley and the shoutfest over Israeli-Palestinian history. Ross describes the critical role of the stories that

…ethnic groups build to explain their past, their present, and their relation to their opponents. The narratives are “compelling, coherent” and link “specific events to that group’s general understandings.”

They are also selective and inaccurate. Disagreement with a group’s memory is often perceived as an attack on its identity, if not its existence.

Ross certainly isn’t the first to talk about a shared narrative as part of ethnic identity. In Israel, there’s constant discussion in the tenure-track class of the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative and how they don’t fit together. For Israelis, 1948 means independence; for Palestinians, the same date equals catastrophe. For Israelis, the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City is the Temple Mount, proof of Jews’ ancient connection to their land; for Palestinians, the same place is Al-Aqsa Mosque, the place where Islam and Palestinian nationalism are fused together.

But Ross gives the best description I’ve seen yet of how such narratives are put together, turning all of history into a justification for group identity today – and also of how strange the story sounds to outsiders. Two groups can live side by side, overlapping, among each other, talk about the same history – and select such different facts, give such different explanations of those facts, that it sounds like they are talking about two distant countries. To one group, the other’s story sounds ludicrous. But if you attack a group’s story, you attack the very meaning of its world. Criticize your own group’s story, even softly, and you are likely to be considered a turncoat. And yet, as Ross also notes, within the same ethnic community, there are also conflicting versions of the story.

Politicians and preachers are often high priests of a group’s story. Members of minorities usually know better than to tell their story when the majority is present. Growing up as an American Jew, I learned at an age too young for me to remember that the story we told around the table in my Jewish home – a story out of jokes and horror and jokes about horror – was not to be told at public school.

Observed through Ross’s lens, the Wright affair was a standard, bitter fight over narrative. Wright told one variation of an African-American narrative. To white listeners, that story was not only irrational but an act of aggression – in that it portrayed whites as aggressive. Obama, running as a multiracial candidate, needed both to reject the story and avoid doing so.

For the least upset of white listeners, Rev. Wright was loony to suggest that Aids is a government plot against blacks. (As loony, say, as a Palestinian saying that there was never a Temple at the Temple Mount sounds to Israelis.) But a 2005 survey of African-Americans aged 15-44 found:

  • 27 percent believe AIDS was produced in a government laboratory;
  • 15 percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks; and
  • 16 percent say the government created AIDS to control the black population.

Earlier, a 1999 survey reached similar findings, ad showed that “blacks who agreed that AIDS is a conspiracy against them tended to be culturally traditional, college-educated men who had experienced considerable racial discrimination.” In other words, Wright was repeating a well known variation on an accepted story. The variation was a minority view, perhaps infuriating to some blacks, but not a surprise to them.

The Aids-conspiracy story suffers from the fallacy of intent (someone deliberately made this happen) and the monolithic fallacy – our opponents act as one, lead by their government. Not only are those common flaws in ethnic narratives, they are particularly infuriating to the opposing group. On the other hand, the story fits an essential piece of the larger, shared black narrative: We’ve suffered hatred, neglect and deliberate government abuse. There is more fact in that story than many whites feel comfortable acknowledging. The Aids story says that this latest plague fits the larger, coherent and unchanging African-American reality.

As a candidate, Obama couldn’t disown Wright completely because to do so would be to attack not just the Aids story but the wider narrative, and thereby to attack his own community. Instead, he criticized a third basic flaw of ethnic narratives: the fallacy of timelessness: The past is the present is the future.

Very softly, he also alluded to a white, working-class American narrative of blacks getting unfair advantages. He had to be even more delicate with this one – after all, in the American story, someone half-white is all black, so he’s an outsider. And he’s a candidate, seeking consensus – not a professor or a pundit. He couldn’t say that working class whites sometimes blame blacks for their lack of opportunity because America’s story of itself doesn’t have much room for explanations based on entrenched class privilege.

So what he did instead was to try to offer a new, shared American narrative: All this racial tension is real, it’s part of our past. But the real American story is about constant progress toward a “more perfect union.” Even the constitution started out stained by racism – but can be perfected.

He also offered a symbol for the change: himself. I’m not black, he said, I embody the multiracial future, I’m America reborn.

A new narrative, obviously, isn’t going to solve the practical aspects of the racial conflict in America. It won’t end black poverty. But as Ross has written, solving the practical problems is only part of any process of ethnic reconciliation. The stories do have to be rewritten; new symbols do have to be found, or old ones reinterpreted.

As someone not enamored of personal saviors, I’m uncomfortable with Obama making himself into the symbol of reconciliation. His willingness to present himself as the answer provides the waft of psychological truth in the comments about “Obama is Jesus.”

But it also seems that he belongs to a rare group of leaders who understand that they reshape the stories instead of being prisoners of them, that they can take old symbols and give them new meanings, so that people look at their past and suddenly imagine new possibilities.

It’s not a unique skill. In his book, Ross describes how King Juan Carlos of Spain opened the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Barcelona is in Catalonia, whose people regard themselves as members of the Catalan nation. For Spaniards, Spain was hosting the Olympics. Catalans had a different idea. At the opening ceremony, Juan Carlos declared “Welcome to Barcelona” – in Catalan. It was as he had said, “I am the king of Catalonia, and of Spain, sister-nations.” Pope John Paul II performed similar magic during his 2000 visit to Israel when he prayed at the Western Wall, affirming by gesture the validity of Judaism and altering the dynamic of Jewish-Catholic relations.

Obama, on the other hand, likes to talk. So he told a different story about America, in which whites and blacks are working together. If he can get other people to tell that story, he might change history – that is to say, history itself, memory.

To which I should add one more point that Ross makes – it’s not necessary for two groups in conflict to agree on one shared story. It’s not even likely. They do need to learn a way of telling the past that leaves room for living together. At a great remove from my native country, I can see how Obama is trying to do that. All together immersed in Israeli-Palestinian madness, I find it hard to imagine how each side in this conflict will rewrite what we tell about the past, about the places we contest, about the future. But it’s quite clear we need to do so.

Related posts:

Obama Comes Clean

A liberal Israel lobby? If you will it, it is no dream

McCain, Hagee, and Sympathy for the Assassin

McCain, Hagee, Lieberman, Clinton, Obama: Who’s good for Israel

Are You Listening, Joe Lieberman?

McCain: Uh, Sunni? Er, Shi’ite?

Hagee v. Hagee


9 thoughts on “Wright, Race and Contested Stories”

  1. I think Obama has to tell another story, about his sexism. I got quite a jolt out of this blog:
    http://1dumblonde.wordpress.com/2008/04/06/barack-obama-and-the-harvard-law-review-sexism-and-murder/.

    I like your post. It’s very thoughtful and requires careful reading. My feeling is that we know very little about Sen. Obama and that is the problem. The conversation he wants to have needs to be done over time, and he wants to be president NOW.

    His allusion to the white working class narrative, which you point out, is interesting, because he is himself of an immigrant background, not a traditional African-American background.

  2. A lucid and enlightening article, and I agree with almost everything you say, except your point about Obama offering himself as a symbol of reconciliation. Perhaps for those of us used to parliamentary systems it is odd, but the US presidency is all about offering yourself up as a symbol. I do not understand those that say that Obama’s skill with words should count against him–politics is all about words and getting people lined up in the same direction to get sh*t done. The career civil servants get on with the real work. The way he has assembled his team, attacked the machine and dealt with all of the stuff thrown at him has been mighty impressive.

    Part of his appeal is that he represents change–to that end he couldn’t have decades in office, otherwise he would be part of the system, right. I can only judge according to the options placed before me, and of the three options, the prospect of Obama not getting in is pretty scary. I am sure if I was an American I would feel the same way.

  3. huntingdonpost- I think it’s a unreasonable to associate Obama with a sexist (and sick) satire that took place a year after he left Harvard Law School.

    Gershom- Although the idea that the US government created the AIDS virus is obviously false, there are reasons why it might seem plausible to some in Wright’s congregation. There’s the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of African-Americans with syphillis were left deliberately untreated to study the progress of the disease- until 1972.

    And as a caucasian American, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard other whites complaining about the African-American birth rate or wanting plans to lower it (“if they want food stamps, they damn welll should be sterilized first”). Back in the 70s and early 80s, several married, middle class black friends of mine heard ugly comments in public when they were pregnant. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen much now, thank goodness, but it did in the quite recent past.

  4. Thank you Anne E. I’ve been shocked that more people haven’t brought up Tuskegee. With a history like this, it’s no wonder that people think it might happen again.

    This article was wonderful.

  5. I thought this blog post was very thoughtful and I enjoyed reading it. As a 33 year old women from the U.S. what I find most interesting is that for me, and many of my generation, when Obama talks about a reality “in which whites and blacks are working together” he is speaking OUR narrative. We hear the narratives of the Rev. Wrights, as well as the Baby Boomer women who see Hillary Clinton as just desserts for years of sexism, and we don’t identify with it.

    It is the narrative of unity and understanding that speaks to post – Baby Boomers and that is one reason why we overwhelmingly support Barack Obama.

  6. fear is the base of waitíng for Obama to be luminated, it is the fear of the unknown of the other, of the black, of the person with the funny name.

    Obama needs to be luminated, need to be studied, for how long. this was the racial motive for the voters of New Hampshire who came in droves and stood in line in the snow, but still voted for Hillary. it was also the motive of the 3.am ad against him.

    do we know him, translate itself in to, is he white?

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