Saturday 22 March 2008
by: Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Over the past week or so, mainstream media have turned much of their attention to the fiery sermons of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Dr. Wright is pastor to Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and his family. He was also, until recently, pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago.
Most of the discussion and commentary about Dr. Wright’s sermons have come from a predominantly white media. The points of discussion have centered on what they consider to be the “vile, racist and un-American things” said by Dr. Wright. Very few, if any, of the discussions have focused on the historical basis and accuracy of what Dr. Wright actually said.
The major problem with the discussions is they have been largely one-sided. The media have used the imagery of Dr. Wright, clad in African garb, shouting in the cadence of an old-time fire and brimstone minister and playing to the camera as a scare tactic. Has this become the “Willie Hortonization” of Senator Barack Obama? The reporting and commentary on Dr. Wright’s words have been presented from the perspective of people who either have no appreciation for the African-American historical experience or a personal agenda when it comes to presenting these issues.
Dr. Wright is under attack for saying such things as “… the government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strikes law, and then wants us (African-Americans) to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no; not ‘God Bless America,’ God damn America … for killing innocent people; God damn America for treating its citizens as less than human….” These are very strong words, delivered at what many are calling a possible turning point in American history with regard to America’s willingness to elect an African-American candidate. While the mainstream media have found no merit in any of Dr. Wright’s statements, let’s examine their merit from a historical basis.
When people read the Constitution, the supreme law of the United States, they see the oldest governing constitution in the world. They see a great document that has articulated the precepts of life, liberty and happiness that all in this country try to follow. What is often overlooked are the parts of the Constitution that laid the foundation for hundreds of years of slavery and oppression for African-Americans; the constitutional framework for human beings to be treated as less than human. It’s these sections of the Constitution that America has never truly atoned for and still refuses to make right.
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution stated, “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” This was known as the Three-Fifths Compromise and laid the groundwork for African slaves brought into America as forced labor to be defined as non-persons.
Article I, Section 9 allowed the importation of slaves to continue in America for twenty-one years after ratification of the Constitution by declaring: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” This section only outlawed the importation of slaves once the domestic stock of slaves could be replenished by natural birthrates and importation would no longer be needed; again, treating its citizens as less than human.
Article IV, Section 2 stated, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” This was enforced by Congress on September 18, 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, allowing Southern states to reclaim slaves that had escaped to the North.
The Three Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave provisions were superseded by constitutional amendments only after their damage to African-Americans had been done and the benefit to America had been served.
It is very easy to wrap oneself in the history and glory that is America and forget that from 1619 to 1868 (249 years) African-Americans suffered under the brutality and oppression of government-supported chattel slavery. In 1857, as Dred Scott, a slave, petitioned the US Supreme Court for his freedom, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, “beings of an inferior order (African-Americans), and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Even after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the 14th Amendment granted their citizenship, and the 15th Amendment grated them the right to vote, from 1876 to 1965 (89 years) African-Americans continued to suffer under state-supported Jim Crow oppression in America. This was codified in 1896 by another Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the doctrine of separate but equal. These vestiges of slavery and oppression still plague many sectors of the African-American community, and the sense of white privilege they created continues to foster a false sense of white entitlement.
This is just the historical background for Dr. Wright’s comments. During his lifetime he has dealt with segregated schools, separate and unequal education, and discrimination in housing, employment and lending. He has witnessed civil rights protesters beaten by the police, ravaged by dogs, brutalized by fire hoses and COINTELPRO. Since his birth in 1941, an estimated 40 African-Americans have been lynched in this country. He was 14 years old when Emmett Till was brutally murdered and 23 years old when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed. Americans continue to deal with racial profiling, driving while black, the disproportionate rate of incarceration of African-Americans, the suspension of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping and other constitutional violations.
Regarding Dr. Wright’s comments about drugs and AIDS, let’s not forget the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. From 1932 to 1972, the US Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis. These men, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness. In his May 16, 1997, apology, President Bill Clinton said:
“The United States government did something that was wrong – deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens … clearly racist.”
With this historical understanding, it is not too far-fetched to think that the US government could be involved in similar activity as it relates to AIDS.
What has been conspicuously absent from the discussions about Dr. Wright’s comments in mainstream media is any analysis of the validity of his comments based upon his personal history and life experiences. It is very easy for white commentators such as Bill O’Reilly to dismiss his sermons as racist diatribes, since O’Reilly has no interest in trying to understand the plight of people of color in America.
Dr. Wright has also said, “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is brought right back into our own front yard; America’s chickens are coming home to roost….” Well, let’s examine the record.
The Arms Exports Control Act prohibits the president from furnishing military aid to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. In spite of all of the evidence supporting claims of the Israeli government’s human rights abuses of the Palestinian people, for FY2005 the United States provided $2.22 billion in military aid. This aid to Israel has a dramatic effect on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. It is the US funding that pays for the guns and ammunition, F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters that are used to carry out Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and people.
According to The Boston Globe, in 1984, just after Ronald Reagan’s re-election, Bishop Desmond Tutu referred to the Reagan administration’s support for the South African government as “Immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.” Reagan ignored the rising number of Americans who were calling for American companies to stop doing business there. The president of so-called sunny optimism attempted to blind Americans with his policy of “constructive engagement” with the white minority regime in Pretoria. All constructive engagement did was give the white minority more time to mow down the black majority in the streets and keep dreamers of democracy, such as Nelson Mandela, behind bars.
History is replete with examples of the United States arranging to depose foreign leaders. In 1909, President Taft ordered the overthrow of Nicaraguan President Jose Santos Zelaya. According to Stephen Kinzer, “In Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam and Chile, diplomats and intelligence agents replaced generals as the instruments of American intervention.” More recent examples of US intervention would be the invasion of Panama and the illegal invasion of Iraq.
Some may take issue with the earlier statement, “… the government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strikes law, …” by asking, “is Rev. Wright accusing the US government of supplying drugs to the black community?” This story has been well-documented in the 1996 San Jose Mercury News expose entitled “Dark Alliance: The CIA Complicity in the Crack Epidemic.”
I can understand people being uncomfortable with the comments made by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. White Americans have also been lied to, miseducated and desensitized about the plight of African-Americans. With the help of the social conservative agenda, many have developed a “deaf ear” when it comes to issues regarding race. The truth, especially an ugly truth that forces Americans to examine the precepts of America, “with liberty and justice for all,” and compare them with the hypocrisy of the American reality can be troubling. For far too long, Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security. Americans have believed history as told by the oppressor and failed to understand the reality of the oppressed.
Dr. Wright is not un-American. He embodies what America was founded upon, the free exchange of ideas in the public space, speaking truth to power, challenging America to be the best that it can be. The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s views might not reconcile with many Americans’ perceptions of America, but they must not be discarded as the ranting of an angry man. His statements were founded in the historical truths that African-Americans have and continue to live through.