Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Senator Barack Obama's Trinity United Baptist Church in Chicago, staged a press conference in Washington last week that was simultaneously amusing, bizarre and disturbing.
Seizing centre stage in the presidential campaign, he expressed views that insulted the sensibilities of a significant majority of Americans, threatening Obama's political viability. Although the Illinois senator forcefully repudiated Wright the next day, the episode threatens to upend his prospects in Tuesday's crucial North Carolina and Indiana Democratic presidential primaries.
A dark vision
Wright believes that he lives in a sick, venal and profoundly unjust society. The United States is, to summarise the views expressed by Wright in his April 28 Washington press conference, among other things:
- a perpetrator of state terrorism, which, in essence, deserved to be attacked on September 11, 2001;
- a government capable of using the AIDS virus to commit genocide against helpless minority members of its own population; and
- hopelessly divided between ethnicities ('races') that have wildly different cultures, religious beliefs and even brain-capacities.
The first view is invalid, using any reasonable definition of 'state terrorism', while the latter pair of notions are pseudo-knowledge laced with conspiracy theory. Wright later went on to praise Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is infamously anti-Semitic. He also implied that any public disagreement with his views was an attack "on the black church".
Yet Wright also exhibited considerable charisma, intelligence and humour. How could an obviously gifted individual also display such profound ignorance and fearful paranoia? The fault may lie with the historical afflictions of US society, which today, thankfully, are largely confined to the past.
The weight of history
Wright's formative years came during the 1950s, when the United States enjoyed a surge in post-war prosperity -- except for blacks, who were officially or unofficially relegated to second- or third-class status in much of the nation. 'Jim Crow' laws in many states banned intermarriage, prohibited blacks from using 'white' public facilities, and imposed voter 'qualifications' designed to keep black citizens from participating in elections. Until 1954, when Wright was 13, blacks were often forced to attend segregated and spectacularly inferior schools.
The Civil Rights era of the 1960s ended these practices. Yet one of the most notorious manifestations of second-class black status, which Wright cited in his press conference, was not uncovered and discontinued until the early 1970s. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, conducted between 1939 and 1972, was a federally-sponsored study assessing the progress of the disease in untreated patients. Nearly 400 mostly poor, uneducated black men, who could easily have been cured with penicillin, were instead allowed to suffer in the name of science. Former President Bill Clinton apologised for this shameful episode in 1997.
A better place
Yet, for all of its present problems and inequalities, the United States' stance on race has improved massively since Wright was a young man. Official discrimination is ancient history, and overt (or even covert) displays of racial prejudice are a major social taboo. Intermarriage and mixed-ethnicity children become more common every year. As Obama has noted, Wright's problem is that he remains trapped in the fearful paradigm of his youth, when black paranoia about US government intentions was more justified.
But that was a different America. And the past, as novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, is another country.