And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxtables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.
Another political tradition in black America, running counter to the one publicly embraced by Obama and Booker T. Washington, casts its skepticism not simply upon black culture but upon the entire American project. This tradition stretches back to Frederick Douglass, who, in 1852, said of his native country, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States at this very hour.” It extends through Martin Delany, through Booker T.’s nemesis W. E. B. Du Bois, and through Malcolm X. It includes Martin Luther King Jr., who at the height of the Vietnam War called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” And it includes Obama’s former pastor, he of the famous “God Damn America” sermon, Jeremiah Wright.
The Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, in his 2011 book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, examines this tradition by looking at his own father and Reverend Wright in the context of black America’s sense of patriotism. Like Wright, the elder Kennedy was a veteran of the U.S. military, a man seared and radicalized by American racism, forever remade as a vociferous critic of his native country: in virtually any American conflict, Kennedy’s father rooted for the foreign country.
The deep skepticism about the American project that Kennedy’s father and Reverend Wright evince is an old tradition in black America. Before Frederick Douglass worked, during the Civil War, for the preservation of the Union, he called for his country’s destruction. “I have no love for America,” he declaimed in a lecture to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. “I have no patriotism … I desire to see [the government] overthrown as speedily as possible and its Constitution shivered in a thousand fragments.”
Kennedy notes that Douglass’s denunciations were the words of a man who not only had endured slavery but was living in a country where whites often selected the Fourth of July as a special day to prosecute a campaign of racial terror:
On July 4, 1805, whites in Philadelphia drove blacks out of the square facing Independence Hall. For years thereafter, blacks attended Fourth of July festivities in that city at their peril. On July 4, 1834, a white mob in New York City burned down the Broadway Tabernacle because of the antislavery and antiracist views of the church’s leaders. Firefighters in sympathy with the arsonists refused to douse the conflagration. On July 4, 1835, a white mob in Canaan, New Hampshire, destroyed a school open to blacks that was run by an abolitionist. The antebellum years were liberally dotted with such episodes.
Jeremiah Wright was born into an America of segregation—overt in the South and covert in the North, but wounding wherever. He joined the Marines, vowing service to his country, at a time when he wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in some states. He built his ministry in a community reeling from decades of job and housing discrimination, and heaving under the weight of drugs, gun violence, and broken families. Wright’s world is emblematic of the African Americans he ministered to, people reared on the anti-black-citizenship tradition—poll taxes, states pushing stringent voter-ID laws—of Stephen Douglas and Andrew Johnson and William F. Buckley Jr. The message is “You are not American.” The countermessage—God damn America—is an old one, and is surprising only to people unfamiliar with the politics of black life in this country. Unfortunately, that is an apt description of large swaths of America.
Whatever the context for Wright’s speech, the surfacing of his remarks in 2008 was utterly inconvenient not just for the Obama campaign but for much of black America. One truism holds that black people are always anxious to talk about race, eager to lecture white people at every juncture about how wrong they are and about the price they must pay for past and ongoing sins. But one reason Obama rose so quickly was that African Americans are war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that was tired of the old Baby Boomer debates. Blacks, too, were sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing. There was a broad sense that integration had failed us, and a growing disenchantment with our appointed spokespeople. Obama’s primary triumphs in predominantly white states gave rise to rumors of a new peace, one many blacks were anxious to achieve.