May 8, 2008
The Wright flap and the black candidate
Black candidates tread a different road than white candidates, especially when they are the first black candidates to seriously contend for an executive office, such as mayor, senator, governor and now president.
While there are some advantages to the black candidate, such as strong African American support and the sympathy of many white liberals, the disadvantages are also significant.
Qualities that might be appealing or at least acceptable in a white person can seem scary if the person is black. If an African American candidate had even half of John McCain's temper, for instance, he or she would not even be competitive. Talk about an angry black man!
A white candidate who is a ladies man may be viewed as a charmingly bad boy. A black man like Harold Ford Jr. can lose a Senate race in Tennessee after a political ad shows a white woman saying, "Call me."
The African American candidate is held responsible for the words and action of any black person with whom he or she has any contact, and sometimes even with no contact at all. When Tom Bradley ran for L.A. mayor in 1969, Sam Yorty linked this moderate city councilman and former police officer to Black Panthers who were very much in the news. As mayor, he often had to deal with Louis Farrakhan's controversial statements about Jews and a host of other issues.
Was Bradley a secret Panther sympathizer, or was he really in the thrall of Farrakhan? For people who knew Bradley, the questions were ludicrous. But in his first race for mayor, enough voters bought the argument to re-elect the inept Yorty.
Imagine how much more damaging it is if it is the candidate's long-time pastor and if his comments are as appalling as those of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama took a big risk by at first rejecting the message but not the man, but when Wright began his recent speaking tour highlighting his most outrageous comments, Obama went further and cut his ties to the minister. He had every obligation to do this, and voters were right to expect decisive action on his part.
In Sunday's New York Times, though, columnist Frank Rich finally asked the obvious question: Why are we obsessed with the Rev. Wright's relationship with Obama but glide right past the equally shocking views of John McCain's political ally, the Rev. John Hagee? In fact, we now endlessly debate how Obama has handled the Wright, without once asking how McCain has handled Hagee. More importantly, Wright's damaging media tour suggests he would never be a force in an Obama White House. On the other hand, Hagee's recent low profile could allow him to have some influence in a McCain White House.
It is noteworthy that Rich has raised this issue, because most of the media coverage seems to assume that only the Wright story is worth covering. Rich concludes, "If we're to judge black candidates on their own most controversial associates -- and how quickly, sternly, and completely they disown them -- we must judge white politicians by the same yardstick."
People come up with fairly lame excuses for the disparity. One is that Hagee is "only" a political ally while Wright is Obama's pastor. Let's reverse the roles. Suppose Obama did not know Wright personally, but had once denounced him and others like him as "agents of intolerance," earning acclaim for his courage. Then, when gearing up to run for president, Obama found that Wright could move thousands of like-minded followers, and therefore changed course and formed a political alliance with him and others like him. If Obama had done this, the Wright controversy would be an even bigger story than it is today, but this is exactly what McCain has done with right-wing preachers.
Because most whites do not see themselves as part of a white community, but as individuals, many are more comfortable treating white candidates as individuals. So we only ask if McCain himself believes that a proposed event by the gay community caused a divine hand to punish New Orleans by flood (a typical morsel of Hagee's philosophy) or that the Catholic Church is "the great whore." A mild rejection of Hagee's views seems enough to make the issue go away.
On the other hand, almost nobody asks whether Obama actually believes the things that Wright is saying. If we did, he would probably give the same answer. McCain doesn't think like Hagee, and Obama doesn't think like Wright.
Jewish voters must have a feeling of deja vu. There's some history here. In the 1960s the historic black-Jewish alliance around civil rights was sorely tried by battles over a new black militancy. Jews were deeply hurt and angered by anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel from some quarters in the black community. The best reassurance was a strong denunciation of such comments by established African American leaders such as Bradley. For African Americans, though, the path to a new self-determination at times conflicted with the need to reassure Jews.
Because the two groups had been so intertwined, African Americans and Jews had high expectations of each other, and were more deeply hurt, angered, and disappointed when the other fell short. Jews expected to be acknowledged as a major partner in the civil rights movement and in campaigns to elect African American mayors. African Americans expected to be seen as an independent, self-directed community that could choose its own way. The Wright controversy brings that history back up in a way that the Hagee phenomenon does not.
So where do we go from here? We should resolve that African American candidates get to speak for themselves in all their variety, just as white candidates do. The variety of beliefs, characters and personalities among African Americans is tremendous. Without making excuses for Rev. Wright's incendiary remarks, we should try to find a consistency across racial lines. Candidates of all races should tell us what they really think about their associates, whether Wright or Hagee, no matter how many votes that minister can deliver, or how close one's relationship is to him or her. We'll be better off if all the candidates are held to the highest standards both in their own beliefs and in their choices about their associates.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. You can read his daily blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign, JewsChoose2008.