Obama's odyssey on race

Once viewed skeptically by blacks; now hit by whites

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

CHICAGO - From the moment Barack Obama first inserted himself into black life in Chicago, he bore the hallmarks of an outsider: light skin; Ivy League education; international background; and views on race, history, and country that were at odds with the aggrieved worldview of much of the city's black community.

On the streets of the South Side, where the Black Panther movement, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson flowered, Obama was mocked as a dispossessed newcomer who failed to grasp the historical urgency of the black struggle. "The white man in blackface," a political rival once called him.

Though Obama would later convince many black skeptics of his commitment to justice and equality, he made clear he would not be bound by their antagonism toward the white power structure.

"Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and toward black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us and that white Americans couldn't care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing," he told an interviewer in 1995, before his political career had begun. "But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. . . . We've got communities to build."

Today, Obama is under attack from the other end of the spectrum, accused of tacitly endorsing the Afro-centrism and deeply critical views of America expressed by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. To those who know Obama and have followed the arc of his career, the charge makes little sense against a man they have long considered a beacon of a colorblind future.

But to critics, Obama's decision to associate himself for 20 years with a church that preaches black nationalism - an association that once helped establish his credibility in the black community - prompts serious questions about his patriotism, judgment, and allegiances.

The episode, which Obama sought to put behind him with Tuesday's widely broadcast speech on race, has become the biggest challenge yet to his campaign's underlying message: that he is uniquely positioned to write America's next chapter because of his capacity to bridge the divides of race, class, ethnicity, generation, and political party. Wright's fiery rhetoric, including his suggestion in one sermon that "God damn America" was more appropriate than "God bless America," has enraged some voters.

Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago and a fellow member of Wright's church, Trinity United Church of Christ, said Obama did not fully grasp the "intense anger and resentment" that Wright's rhetoric would stir in voters who consider it offensively antipatriotic.

"I think he grasps it now," Hopkins said. "He got baptized."

As Hopkins and others familiar with Obama's career watched his speech Tuesday, they were struck by the irony that a politician once considered too beholden to the establishment would now be condemned as such a threat to it.

"It's one extreme or another," said Naseem Abdul-Majib, a barber who knows Obama from his Hyde Park neighborhood. "Barack is balanced. Just like he stated in his speech, his story is a story you couldn't find anywhere else but here. It's a success story."

Obama first came to know Trinity as a community organizer, not as a committed Christian. It was one of many churches he worked with after moving to Chicago after college to take a $12,000-a-year job helping communities hit hard by steel plant closings.

But Obama, at Wright's urging, came to embrace Trinity as a spiritual home. Part of the church's appeal was its deep roots in the black community, something Obama himself lacked - and yearned for - having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia. In Obama's telling, it was Wright who brought him to Jesus and welcomed him into a faith community that today is 8,000 strong. Wright officiated the wedding of Obama and his wife, Michelle, and baptized their two daughters.

When Wright took over as pastor, in 1972, Trinity's congregation was tiny, but it had a clearly articulated sense of self. Its motto was and continues to be "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian."

Over the next 36 years, Wright, who retired last month, established dozens of programs to help parishioners while standing up for HIV/AIDS patients, gays and lesbians, women in the clergy, and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa. His followers know him as "Rev," or "Doc," or "Pastor."

Wright was never a Pollyanna about race relations. He railed against white attitudes toward African-Americans and preached self-sufficiency to his black worshipers. Phrases like "God damn America," those who know Wright say, reflected not a fierce anti-Americanism but a deserved, if provocative, indictment of a country that had been hostile to blacks.

"This is what I would call the traditional black critique of America, that basically America is flawed on race," said Harwood McClerking, a specialist on race and politics at Ohio State University. "That's a contested premise."

Especially in the hot glare of a presidential race.

"Do such beliefs translate into a political agenda tailored to African-Americans?" Investor's Business Daily asked in an editorial early last year, when Obama, seeking to distance himself from Wright's views, disinvited Wright from giving the invocation at his campaign kickoff. "Would Obama, despite his agreeably race-neutral and nonthreatening public persona, govern and petition on behalf of one group and not necessarily for the greater good of the country?"

Obama's critics have also sought to sew the Wright controversy into a broader narrative about Obama's views on America, raising his decision not to wear a flag lapel pin and Michelle Obama's recent comment that this was the first time in her adult life that she was "really proud" of America. (Obama has said the pin became a substitute for true patriotism; Michelle Obama later said she meant to express pride in all the new voters participating in the primary process.)

But those who know Wright and Obama bristle at what they say is a caricature being painted irresponsibly by the news media.

"Out of that supposedly racist, nationalist, hateful church comes a man who has done more to pull people together, to talk about unity, give people hope, cause people to be inspired and patriotic like I haven't seen in my lifetime," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken white pastor of St. Sabina, a largely black Roman Catholic parish on Chicago's South Side.

Gathering for a small prayer service at Trinity yesterday, about two dozen worshipers expressed pride in their church and their former pastor. The Rev. Barbara A. Heard, an associate pastor, urged them to have faith that the church will emerge from this rocky period.

"They didn't know when they would come out of slavery," Heard said, using a historical analogy to remind the faithful of God's power. "But they knew who would bring them out of slavery."

They ended the service with the hymn "Victory Is Mine."

For his part, Obama is now reorienting his campaign for the critical weeks ahead after what he acknowledges has been a major distraction. Obama used his Tuesday speech to again repudiate Wright's most inflammatory remarks but also to reassert his faith that Americans of all creeds and colors want to get past the divisive politics, racial and otherwise, of the past.

"I would not be running for president if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country," he said. "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected."

"What more do you want a person to say?" asked Obama's barber, who goes by one name, Zariff. "Let's get back to the business of getting the country back on track."

Scott Helman can be reached at

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