On the recommendation of a good friend of mine, I recently read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. It is a moving and deeply revealing journal of Griffin’s experiences as he chemically alters his skin tone to explore the Deep South from a black man’s perspective.
As I read it, incendiary videos of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s minister and longtime friend, surfaced and overwhelmed the news media, as well as the ongoing political campaigns. Interestingly enough, the media’s reaction to Wright’s statements highlighted many issues that Griffin had exposed in his work, particularly in the novel’s powerful epilogue, which Griffin wrote in 1977 as he reflected on decades of civil rights activism.
Griffin’s observations and experiences became a fascinating lens through which to observe the media uproar. Following are some observations based on a reading of Griffin’s work:
One major theme that Griffin hinted at through the book but fully explored in the epilogue is the idea that people will accept an idea of their own creation but reject the same idea if it is presented by an outsider. After his work made him famous, Griffin was invited to city after city to evaluate the social progress of Northern communities. The white leaders who invited Griffin to inspect their cities were essentially asking him to tell them what black community leaders could just as easily have said. When confronted with this point, Griffin remembers a white leader admitting in shame that “It never really occurred to me to ask any of them.” In many cases, when Black community leaders voiced their communities’ opinions, they were scorned and rejected. When Griffin reported the same conclusions, he was hailed as a visionary.
Griffin concluded that white leaders could stomach any sort of news, whether it be the notion that race relations were incredibly good or miserably bad, just so long as they felt that the white community was making these discoveries on its own. This soft racism has been with us ever since, and today we see it from universities to cable news networks, when white scholars and pundits sit around a table and report on the racial progress of our society.
I feel we have a similar situation in the case of Reverend Wright, but I don’t mean to say that what was described above is a particularly white phenomenon. In group dynamics of all stripes we often see people resistant to change until the very moment that they think of proposing the same ideas themselves. In no way do I seek to ascribe this behavior as characteristic to any particular race – it is a majoritarian phenomenon.
Looking at Wright’s comments, especially those played relentlessly in the media, I do not see an advocacy of violence or the demagoguery that would ordinarily mark someone as an extremist. On the contrary, one might easily conclude that Wright is a strict pacifist.
Instead, I see two relevant issues: the portrayal of a racially divided America run by rich white people, and the offense taken by Reverend Wright and presumably those who were clapping in his speeches, to the notion that the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 did not have a level of context great enough to at least generally predict its occurrence.
Wright’s portrayal of race in America is chilling and disheartening, but it reflects a feeling that one can only presume is widely held inside the black community. The belief that the government purposefully introduced crack to Black society is probably completely wrong, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the government’s policies have targeted and damaged black communities to a proportionally greater extent, and with comparatively minor results.
In my opinion, Wright’s views on 9/11 are logical enough: I feel that our actions in the Middle East are a primary motivating factor for Islamic extremism (simply paying attention to the public statements and tapes released by Al-Qaeda should confirm this observation).
Now, I don’t think that what one man says about anything is particularly important. The fact that so many people tend to share his views should be what’s newsworthy about this story. Whether his statements were right or wrong is irrelevant, the selling point for this story should have been the clear sense of alienation and mistrust that appears to exist in this segment of the black community. The media shouldn’t have been asking if his quotes had any effect on Obama, it should have been asking about the extent to which black communities agree with the emotions conveyed and shared in those clips.
Perhaps in a reflection of one of the central themes of Griffin’s epilogue, these issues have not been addressed in the media. One could, of course, engage in a simple thought experiment: if a white social scientist reported these same feelings, how would the media have reacted? Why did the media’s reaction to this issue center around Reverend Wright instead of the substance of what he said, why he said it, and what it does or does not reveal about the opinions and sentiment prevalent in the black community? I would submit that the answer to these questions lies in Griffin’s sorrowful observation that far too often, people can’t stand to hear the truth from an outsider. As Griffin noted in his Epilogue:
“Almost constantly and almost everywhere black men were being faced with this kind of duality. Whites were saying the right things, showing deep concern over injustices, expressing determination to resolve the problems of racism, but never really consulting with black people as equals. The vast difference between what this country was saying and apparently believing, and what the black man was experiencing, was embittering.”
Though our country is now legally colorblind, by most practical measures it is still just as segregated as it ever was. Communication between black and white society is minimal, and to a great extent the economic problems facing black society in the civil rights era are still unresolved. Thirty one years ago, John Howard Griffin, obviously frustrated by decades of too-slow progress, expressed the opinion that it was best to leave the races separate for a time, until “some future date when blacks and whites can enter into encounters in which they truly speak as equals.”
Some have said, in the afterglow of Barack Obama’s brilliant speech regarding his pastor’s comments, that we just heard the opening remarks of that dialog. I certainly hope that this is the case, but until the underlying issues that arose from Reverend Wright’s comments are publicly addressed, I for one will be reserving my judgment.