Senator Obama is mistaken. The problem with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago minister who is the Obama family's pastor and the subject of recent fierce attacks in the media, is not, as Obama has stated, that "he has a lot of the…baggage of those times," (those times being the 1960s).
The problem is also not, as one paper characterized Obama's position on his minister, that Wright is stuck in a "time warp," in a period defined by racial division.
No, the problem is that Wright's opinions are well within the mainstream of those of black America. As public opinion researchers know, the problem is that despite all the oratory about racial unity and transcending race, this country remains deeply racially divided, especially in the realm of politics.
Most white people and the mainstream media tend to be horrified (in a titillating voyeuristic type of way), when they 'look under the hood' to see what's really on blacks folks' mind. Two thirds of whites believe that blacks have achieved or will soon achieve racial equality. Nearly eighty percent of blacks believe that racial justice for blacks will not be achieved either in their lifetime or at all in the U.S. In March 2003, when polls were showing strong support among whites for an invasion of Iraq, a large majority of blacks were shown to oppose military intervention.
In a survey I took during the week that the U.S. went to war, blacks not only opposed the war in large numbers, but a very large majority also thought that protest against the war was one's patriotic duty. A majority of whites thought protesting the war was unpatriotic.
The same type of divides, as I noted in an earlier essay, have appeared in evaluations of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of evaluations of President Bush during the first six years of his administration, during most of the Clinton administration, and for the entire Reagan presidency.
More specifically, Reverend Wright's blend of leftism and Afro-Centrism remains one of the classic patterns of black political ideology. His philosophy is very similar to a number of honored black theologians, including the esteemed Reverend James Cone of Union Theological Seminary.
Indeed, one could argue that Reverend Wright's criticism of racial dynamics in the U.S. and American foreign policy is milder than the biting criticism of American capitalism and imperialism found in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the last years of his life. During the 1990s, seventy percent of black Americans believed the country was racially, economically, and socially unfair toward blacks and the poor (See my 2001 book Black Visions for statistical details and the question wording for these three separate questions).
The black community is angry about race relations in this country. The black community is angry about the bankrupt foreign policy that this nation has pursued since before 9/11. Blacks are angry about what is perceived as the political and moral blindness of white Americans. This anger is spread across the black ideological spectrum (with the exception, perhaps, of within the ranks of black conservatives).
Black nationalists, black leftists, black feminists and black liberals may differ on their solutions for what America's ills, but they all generally agree on the overarching problems Not surprisingly, the last time a scientific survey of black political ideologies was conducted, a large segment of the black population fell into the category of those who believed in the principles of liberalism, yet they held no hope, the survey indicated, that this country would ever live up to its democratic and liberal creed.
So Barack Obama is wrong. Reverend Wright does not represent outdated thinking. The critical views he expresses are all too rooted in the present. The racial divisions that Obama seeks to transcend with his message of hope and unity are not a feature of the past, but a deep structural fixture in this nation's present.
Obama will be continually called upon by the mainstream media to prove that he's not a nationalist like Minister Farrakhan, or an Afrocentric leftist like Reverend Wright. The suspicion will always be that he holds opinions closer to those expressed by Rev. Wright than those he is voicing in the campaign.
Consequently, if the Obama campaign wishes to bring this campaign to a successful conclusion, it will have to realize that it cannot run away from the issue of race and racial division, but will have to find a language that both addresses our hopes for the future while recognizing the difficulties and divisions of the present. The nation's in real trouble if its politicians and pundits continue to believe that that the only road to racial harmony is through denying the past and refusing to discuss the injustices of the present.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.