Making Apologies for Racism

Barbara Kay, National Post, March 20, 2008

There was a time when patriotism and an outsize love of country was a given in anyone running for president of the United States. Not any more. Barack Obama and his wife have demonstrated that being black means never having to say you’re sorry about your—or your fellow blacks’—conditional love for America.

At two Wisconsin rallies last month, Michelle Obama declared, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”

For such transparent civic disdain, a white candidate’s wife would have been made to crawl over broken glass to beg forgiveness, and both would have babbled endlessly on about her unconditional love for her country. Not the Obamas. For all his vaunted humility, Obama never really admits wrong-doing. Obama “clarified” Michelle’s remarks, then Michelle “clarified” her remarks. Neither apologized.

Then on Tuesday, Obama delivered a major speech in Philadelphia to quell public indignation around the incendiary anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor and erstwhile campaign team member, Jeremiah A. Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

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Obama has willingly identified himself with Wright’s vision for 20 years. Wright married the Obamas and baptized their two children. Yet this church is the very antithesis of what you would expect as the spiritual home of a man running on his ability to heal divisions and transcend racial identity.

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Which brings us to the pith of the matter. Obama has been planning his bid for the glittering prize for years. He’s supposedly a canny fellow. How did he fail to realize that his separatist church (in which his own white mother would not be welcome) and racist pastor were going to be a huge political liability to him? Why didn’t he quietly drop out a year ago, and—here’s a radical thought—join a church that reflects his public persona: a church that encourages and attracts a mixed membership of blacks and whites, and whose pastor preaches unity and race-blindness.

That he stayed at Trinity United suggests he and his wife felt morally comfortable in that pew. We must conclude that until they saw his effect on others, they didn’t see anything wrong with the church or with Wright.

Obama’s instinct to escape personal censure for a stunningly poor choice of mentor and religious institution speaks to a troubling sense of personal entitlement. Americans’ unwillingness to accept such behaviour for what it is speaks to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

I am reminded by this episode of another such Democratic presidential candidate’s hypocritical sanctimony: “I smoked, but I didn’t inhale.” Bill Clinton got a pass on a single joint (although not without sustained ridicule).

Nobody can smoke institutionalized vulgarity for 20 years without inhaling. And no white candidate’s career would survive the shame of it. Obama’s rhetoric transcends racial division in America. White Americans’ guilt-fuelled reluctance to condemn Obama’s failings and selective silence embodies it.

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