Monday, May 05, 2008

More Wright than Wrong

It’s nothing new to suggest that the coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is more than a bit colored by race, but the reflections bottomed out when Gary MacDougal’s essay in the Saturday Post brought victim blaming and racial stereotyping to new lows. Ignoring the long history of community development by Trinity United Church of Christ in the Southside of Chicago, MacDougal essentially blames the poverty and institutional racism that plague such communities on Wright and others who would dare to name them as such.

MacDougal asks where a “20-something black man, or other relatively uneducated young people” would get the idea that the American justice system might somehow be stacked against them. Where? Perhaps by looking around with eyes wide open. It doesn’t take Mr. MacDougal’s Harvard graduate degree to ask why almost 40 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons are black, or why blacks are five times more likely to be in jail than whites, or why more than one in 10 young black men are in prison.

Perhaps the young inmate Mr. MacDougal spoke with displayed a lack of rhetorical subtlety and sophistication when he looked at all the black faces surrounding him and said, “this is white man’s genocide.” But when more than 80 percent of defendants in crack cocaine cases are black while two-thirds of crack users are white or Latino, is it any wonder that such charges might emerge from young black men? Moreover, when the black users of crack cocaine receive much harsher penalties than the white users of powder cocaine, a young black prisoner might be forgiven for rashly speculating that white folks “put us in here to keep us down.”

Do these facts of contemporary urban American life point to “perceived victimization” or to real patterns of institutional racism?

Mr. MacDougal is quick to let institutions off the hook, which is not surprising given his long-standing conservative credentials. Still, it is surprising that he should troll so easily in the turgid waters of racial stereotypes. Immediately after speculating that the “vitriol spewed by the Rev. Wrights of this world” teaches young people that the job market is stacked against them, he notes that the federal government spends “more than $10,000 per poor person for welfare.” The clear but unstated implication, given his context, is that “government welfare spending equals spending on poor black people.” Yet there are three times as many poor whites in the United States as there are poor blacks.

Why even bring this up if not to blame the poor for their poverty? Of course, Mr. MacDougal does not actually blame the poor for being poor. It is far easier to blame Jeremiah Wright and other religious leaders who have the temerity to name the present time for what it is.

One wonders, do all of the religious leaders in Appalachia, to take the white example most often counter posed to black urban poverty, preach that “God helps those who help themselves”? If so, it should be noted, they are not preaching from the Judeo-Christian Bible, where that oft-repeated line never appears. That sentiment emerges from the bible of the American Right which worships the god of the free market.

That god has tumbled just a bit of late, what with poverty rates growing not just in Rev. Wright’s neighborhood but across the country. Of course, when poverty increases in the United States, historically speaking, racial minorities take the hardest hit. During the most recent recession, black unemployment reached 10.8 percent; white unemployment peaked at 5.2 percent. Goldman Sachs estimates that national unemployment in the present recession will peak at 6.4 percent sometime in 2009. They predict that black unemployment will top out at 11 percent. Along with unemployment, we can expect that income disparities will increase, especially among the poorest black families. At the same time, we should expect to see social indicators associated with economic hardship, including rising crime rates.

Are these cold statistics and the realities they underscore the fault of Rev. Wright? Well, not even Mr. MacDougal suggests that, but he does point the finger of blame at Wright and his like for discouraging progress and individual responsibility.

One wonders: are the young people in Trinity’s job training seminars on interviewing techniques, job search strategies and dressing for success being discouraged more by what religious leaders teach or by the realities in the streets all around them? Of course, investigating that reality with genuine care is far more difficult than casting blame on an angry black man. It also makes for much less interesting media, which, perhaps more than anything else, explains why the Post wasted so many column inches on the ravings of a calm white man.

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