‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part III

August 24, 2008 at 9:46 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)


Sebastian Mallaby in ‘Wright and Ridiculous’ dismissed the guilt-by-association criticisms of Obama in the Rev. Wright affair. ‘Of all the strange features of this presidential race, the tarnishing of Barack Obama has got to be the most ridiculous. […] Am I supposed to believe that Obama is a supercilious elitist or a menacing ghetto radical? […]Yes, Jeremiah Wright says some disgraceful things. But can anyone explain how that changes Obama’s qualities as a candidate?’[1] Mallaby’s dismissal may seem too pat and the questions rhetorical but he did take on a media consensus, particularly on the right, that Obama was unfit to be president by dint of his twenty-year association with Rev. Wright. That association was portrayed solely in terms of Obama’s sympathy with the bitterness and anger of Wright’s sermons and condemnations of America. Mallaby tries to unpack some of the bonding between the two: ‘The Wright affair tells us that Obama bonded with someone whose political views are sometimes toxic. But as a young man trying to make sense of his mixed heritage, Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance, not political tutorials; as a community organizer, Obama focused on Wright’s admirable social work, not his resentment of the white establishment. Indeed, Obama’s own views on race and politics were diametrically opposed to those of his pastor.’[2] While the gap between ‘spiritual guidance’ and ‘political tutorials’ may not be as binding as Mallaby implies – the political and the spiritual are often intertwined in Wright’s sermons as well as in earlier paradigms such as that of Martin Luther King Jr. – the fact that Wright had done ‘admirable social work’ and that Obama’s views on race are not as ‘toxic’ as his pastor’s, need to be emphasized. The demonization of Wright as well as the tarring of Obama with the Wright brush is emblematic of a desire to create easily comprehensible, monolithic stereotypes that can then be pilloried. Stereotyping and personalization play, as Murray Edelman argues, an essential part in mediated mass politics: ‘It is characteristic of large numbers of people in our society that they see and think in terms of stereotypes, personalization, and oversimplifications, that they cannot recognize or tolerate ambiguous and complex situations, and that they accordingly respond chiefly to symbols that oversimplify and distort.’[3] Written before the age of the internet and blogs Edelman’s analysis may seem patronising and naïve, but the coverage of the Wright controversy bears testimony to the power of distorted and oversimplified symbols. In fact the proliferation of mass and instantaneous media has exacerbated the ease with which caricatures or half-truths may be purveyed.

Fortunately, however, as Mallaby and other analysts were testaments of, the media is not monolithic either.[4] Eugene Robinson extended the idea of difference between Wright and Obama, focusing on Wright’s hubristic homogenization of the black experience: ‘The problem is that Wright insists on being seen as something he’s not: an archetypal representative of the African American church. In fact, he represents one twig of one branch of a very large tree. […] his basic point — that any attack on him is an attack on the African American church and its traditions — is just wrong. In making that argument, he buys into the fraudulent idea of a monolithic, monocultural black America — one with his philosophy and theology at its center.’[5] It is not just the case that the media represented Wright in a stereotypical manner – which it did – but that Wright also colluded in this process by passing himself off as the voice of the black church. The lure of absolute representation of the self and the power inherent in those representations is as irresistible for the good Rev. Wright as it is for the media, and both sides take refuge in their vision of the evil ‘other’.

For conservative media in the US the Wright sermons were manna, effectively pinning Obama to a fundamentalist strain in his community with little chance of explication, communication, or escape. The general media coverage was, as Mallaby pointed out, ‘a revelation about our political culture: About its failure to distinguish the important from the trivial and about the inevitability that the race card will eventually be played against a black candidate.’[6] Obama’s assertions on race may sound rhetorically improbable but there is nothing unreal, no ‘fairy tale’ about the ways in which his candidacy has helped to redefine for both blacks and whites the centrality of race in American polity and imaginative frames. Race is not merely a ‘card [that] will eventually be played against a black candidate’ but it is a way of confronting and re-imaging the politics of race. In that sense Mallaby is right about the dominant media coverage being symptomatic of America’s ‘political culture’, not only in the context of Obama’s race but insinuations of his Muslim background and persuasion. As Betsy Reed points out: ‘[…] questions about his devotion to America carry a special potency, as xenophobia mingles with racism to create a poisonous brew. The toxicity is further heightened in this post-9/11 atmosphere, in which an image of Obama in Somali dress is understood as a slur and e-mails claiming he is a “secret Muslim” schooled in a madrassa spread virally, along with rumors that he took the oath of office on a Koran.’[7] Although the rumors have been debunked they continue to circulate and the Koran – as well as its attendant desecrations – carries a particular symbolic potency in the current climate of fear. The recent case of a US soldier in Iraq being disciplined for using a Koran for target practice followed by a public apology from the US commanding officer is an instance of disrespect and alien distancing, followed by a politically expedient apology.[8] Reed’s excellent essay deals with questions of race and gender in the current primaries election cycle and focuses on the ways in which the former circulates in political and media discourse.

Reed highlights Hillary Clinton’s complicity in making Obama’s race an election issue. ‘[…] what is most troubling – and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement–is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival’s race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior “electability,” she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right–in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country–seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly racialized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented.’[9] While Clinton has not gained much leverage from her less than principled positions on Obama’s race and Muslim identity, the fact that she too has played the game shows its potency and attraction within a political field that perceives race as a primary and often negative marker of identity and belonging. In the debate between gender and race Reed argues that while ‘Clinton has’ ‘faced a raw misogyny’ ‘racism, which is often coded, is more insidious and trickier to confront’.[10] Setting up a hierarchy of victimization is both tricky and ludicrous because it creates a competitive victimhood that allows for the Ralph Peters kind of dismissal of Wright’s sermons as belonging to a global victims’ club of dispossessed rant. Such a hierarchy is also demeaning in the way in which it privileges victimhood as the sole quality or value worth considering in a subject. Furthermore the media replication of Wright’s sermons is a not so subtle replay of racial oppositions and fears.

However, Reed is accurate in her summation of the implications of racial codification within a larger context of American identity, a point I emphasized earlier. Reed writes that ‘Wright’s angry invocation of race and nation tapped into a reservoir of doubt about the very Americanness of African-Americans. “American citizenship has always been racialized as white. Who is a true American? Are African-Americans true Americans? That has been the question,” she [Paula Giddings, biographer of Ida B. Wells] says.’[11] The debate over and anxiety about the idea of America is deflected in major media discourse into an attack on the messenger. The virulence of the attack reflects in some ways the depth of the anxieties.

John Nichols in a posting on The Online Beat, a blog on The Nation tapped into the idea that while Wright’s sermons may not be ‘comforting’ they are ‘for the most part’ ‘well within the mainstream of American religious and political discourse’.[12] He went on to observe: ‘In more ways than Republican and now Democratic critics seem prepared to admit, Wright is the embodiment of an American religious and political tradition of challenging the country’s sins while calling it to the higher ground that extends from the founding of the republic.’[13] Nichols is referring to what Sacvan Bercovitch calls the ‘Jeremiad tradition’ in American history and self-conception. Nichols cites Thomas Jefferson: ‘“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other,” wrote Jefferson in 1781’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asked, “(Can) the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”’[14] Jefferson’s fears about the wrath of God are related to the idea that America is a new Eden, established by a special covenant between God and His chosen people. ‘Because New England was God’s country, its inhabitants must expect His lash.’ This ideation created what Bercovitch calls a ‘teleology of tribulation’.[15] That slavery should be the cause of Jefferson’s fears is appropriate in the contemporary context where Wright and Obama in their different ways bring to the fore the troubled histories of racial oppressions. Nichols perceives this tradition as a positive and empowering one concluding that America needs to heed the sayings of Wright rather than caricature or condemn him: ‘America has been blessed from its beginnings by champions of liberty, by abolitionists and civil rights marchers, by suffragists and union organizers, by anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and challengers of the military-industrial complex like Dwight Eisenhower. Necessarily, these patriots have said some tough things about American leaders and policies. They have acknowledged flaws that are self-evident. Yet, they have not done so out of hatred. Rather, they have loved America sufficiently to believe it can be as good and as just as figures so diverse and yet in some very important ways so similar as Thomas Jefferson and Jeremiah Wright have taught us.’[16] Jefferson, Twain, Eisenhower, and Wright represent for Nichols a pantheon of American nay-sayers who were brave enough to stand up to the orthodoxy of their times and their refusal represents a peculiarly American form of patriotism. Bercovitch refers to these ‘prophets of doom’ and their effort to reconcile reality with mythic expectations: ‘In spite of themselves, our prophets of doom [‘God damn America’] also helped persuade the American that the vision he inherited must be made to correspond to the fact. They too helped make him feel, if only out of desperation, that the distance between what is and what ought to be demanded his rededication to the spirit of America.’[17] While Obama has not used the intemperate or negative language of his former pastor it is interesting that he too taps into this national reservoir of prophecy, of the possibility of change that will redeem America and fulfil pledges that were made at its founding moments.


In her monthly column for Salon.com Camille Paglia touched upon what Obama’s association with the Rev. Wright meant from a somewhat different, but still hopeful angle. ‘My one nagging question about Obama, given his Kenyan lineage and broad background in Indonesia and Hawaii as well as his Ivy League education, was how well he knew the history, passions and aspirations of African-American culture. But Obama’s 20-year membership in Rev. Wright’s Chicago megachurch completely reassured me on this score. First of all, sermons constitute only one small part of any congregation’s rich religious and social life. Second, not for a moment do I believe — as talk radio shows are tirelessly alleging — that Obama’s political views are secretly identical to Wright’s. On the contrary, it was through listening to Wright, who was reciting a black liberationist theology that has been standard issue for a half-century, that Obama honed his desire to bridge the gap between racial and ethnic communities in the United States. This is one reason I believe Obama is the right person at the right time for the presidency. Where Hillary divides and sows bitterness, Obama wants to unite and heal.’[18] Where many commentators saw naivety, bad-judgment, lack of patriotism and worse, Paglia perceives the Wright sermons period as a transitional one, preparing and honing Obama for a presidency that will transcend the divisions exacerbated by Wright’s sermons and by their airing on You Tube and radio and mass media outlets. Whether her hope is wishful and whether the politics and ideological frameworks of the campaign and possible presidency allow for such a transcendence is debatable. What remains vital and more than interesting are the ways in which all sides to this media fuelled debate participate in their conceptions of America and its future.

– Subarno Chattarji


[1] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), p. 31.

[4] An example of alternative analyses was an opinion piece in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California) which expressed the dissociation very clearly: ‘If Wright were running for office, he would get the full treatment for his race-baiting and delusional ramblings and for rhetoric that ill serves Chicago’s black community. But as long as Wright is not drafting policy for Obama, he is entitled to his uninformed opinion.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[5] Eugene Robinson, ‘Where Wright Goes Wrong,’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A 17.

[6] Sebastian Mallaby, ‘Wright and Ridiculous,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A 17.

[7] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080519/betsyreed

[8] See ‘Soldier uses Quran for target practice: Muslim holy book was found riddled with bullet holes at Baghdad range,’ Reuters, May 18, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24693647/ Major General Jeffrey Hammond, commander of US troops in Baghdad said, ‘“I am a man of honor, I am a man of character. You have my word this will never happen again.”’

[9] Betsy Reed, ‘Race to the Bottom,’ The Nation, May 19, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080519/betsyreed

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,


[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 57, 59.

[16] John Nichols, ‘Wright, Jefferson and the Wrath of God,’ The Online Beat, Posted 04/29/2008,


[17] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, p. 197.

[18] Camille Paglia, ‘She won’t go easy,’ Salon.com, May 14, 2008, http://www.salon.com/opinion/paglia/2008/05/14/tarantella/index2.html#


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