Dallas Morning News : Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright's incendiary quotes illuminate chasm between races

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright's incendiary quotes illuminate chasm between races

By JEFFREY WEISS | The Dallas Morning News | April 8, 2008


The incendiary quotes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were like the O.J. Simpson verdict: a cultural lightning bolt illuminating a chasm between the races, followed by thunderous arguments.

Many white people reacted to sound bites from Dr. Wright's sermons with, "Is he crazy? How could anybody be so wrong?" Many black people said, "He may be wrong on some details, but there's nothing crazy about his message."

The controversy is letting white America in on what was well-known to black Americans: A profound distrust of government and other institutions is preached in varying degrees from black pulpits – and shared by many in the pews.

Dr. Wright's sermons are national news now because he was the pastor of presidential candidate Barack Obama. While most of his provocative claims are grounded in fact, Dr. Wright has asserted that HIV and crack cocaine were government plots aimed at African-Americans – claims that most historians say are false.

He is hardly alone in those beliefs, however. According to one national poll, about half of African-Americans believe the AIDS virus is manmade. Many also accept the claim that the government brought illegal drugs to black neighborhoods.

Most of Dr. Wright's controversial quotes are from a sermon he has delivered many times, including once in Dallas. He says that governments lie, change and fail, but God and Jesus do not. He lists what he calls lies and failures by the U.S. government and calls for God to condemn America.

In a speech last month, Mr. Obama rejected the most controversial of Dr. Wright's statements. He said his spiritual mentor "spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."

But modern conspiracy theories are rooted in that tragic past, which includes captives in slave ships, unwitting subjects of medical experiments, and victims of the 1927 demolition of levees in New Orleans.

"Our history in America says that we are not shocked by his statements," said the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.

Few black religious leaders have publicly criticized Dr. Wright. Bishop T.D. Jakes, head of the Dallas-based Potter's House megachurch, blogged ambiguously about Dr. Wright last week: "But please know that we are not monolithic and all blacks do not all agree with him, with me, or with anyone else."

The Rev. Clara Reed, superintendent of the Sherman-McKinney District of the United Methodist Church agreed with Mr. Obama that Dr. Wright is too tied to the past.

"We are in a different place, thanks be to God," she said. "And thanks be to people like Jeremiah Wright who called it like it was."

Conspiracy theories

Dr. Wright asserts that HIV was invented by the U.S. government as a tool of genocide. A national survey in 2002 and 2003 by researchers at Rand Corp. and Oregon State University indicated that about half of African-Americans believe the virus was created on purpose; and a quarter said the virus was first brewed in a government laboratory.

But AIDS experts say that no scientist had the skill to craft the virus in the 1950s, when later medical tests say it first appeared in Africa.

Belief in the HIV conspiracy makes it harder to convince some patients to get care, said Dr. Keith Rawlings, medical director for the AIDS Arms/Peabody Health Center in Dallas.

"There are some individuals who will not take some medications because they are so distrustful," he said. "As a wise man once said, you really are not paranoid if they are out to get you."

History fuels the distrust – particularly the infamous Tuskegee Experiment. For 40 years, beginning in 1932, nearly 400 black men with syphilis were enrolled in a health study to be treated for "bad blood." They were never told they had syphilis and were not treated for it because the doctors wanted to do autopsies on men who died with the disease.

The government only admitted what happened in 1972, after the Associated Press broke the story. The near-universal knowledge of that experiment among African-Americans grants credence to other health-related conspiracies.

"Certainly not in my lifetime will there ever be a sense of resolution and total trust in the medical system because of that," Dr. Reed said.

Meanwhile, racial inequities in health care continue to be documented. Just last month, a study of California's Medi-Cal managed care program identified significant differences in care for poor blacks, compared to poor people of other races.

"No matter how you slice it – in terms of the disease burden, outcomes, access to care – there is a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and particularly on the African-American community," Dr. Rawlings said.

Dr. Wright also implied that the government sent illegal drugs to black neighborhoods to kill or imprison blacks. That theory has no reputable evidence but nonetheless has considerable support among African-Americans.

But true examples of government drug policies that disproportionately hammer blacks are easy to find.

Reputable reports have found tenuous links between the CIA and American cocaine dealers who helped fund the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. And federal sentencing requirements for crack are 100 times tougher than for powder, a policy that batters black defendants who are much more likely than whites to face federal charges related to crack.

The federal Sentencing Guidelines Commission has repeatedly recommended equalizing minimum sentences for crack and powdered cocaine, but Congress has not responded. A ruling in December by the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed retroactive appeals by some convicts.
Reaching across the divide

Beyond the fact-checking, some people – including Mr. Obama – are using the Wright controversy to reach across the racial chasm.

Dr. Wright's quotes and Mr. Obama's subsequent race speech were the most prominent episode of the campaign so far, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. About half of those surveyed said they had seen videos of the pastor and of Mr. Obama's speech.

That so many people are paying attention is an opportunity for uncommon discussions, said Neil Foote, owner of a Dallas-based public relations firm and commentator on the Web site Politicsincolor.com.

"The private conversations that blacks and whites have about themselves or about each other are all now on the table," he said. "[Dr. Wright] has opened the wound about what is hate speech and what is fair comment."

People are finding ways to try to heal that wound, said Dr. Haynes. "I have members of my church who are telling me about conversations happening in the workplace that never could have happened before."

Conversations should involve bending on both sides, said Phill Wilson, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute who has worked with Dr. Wright on AIDS education.

"There are grains of truth, and maybe even more than grains, to what Rev. Wright has said," he said. "Some in black America interpret the grains of truth … to be larger than they actually are. And some in white America are not willing to acknowledge that they are as large as they really are."

But to call Dr. Wright hateful, as some white critics have done, is to misuse the word, said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the same congregation once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Hatred and anger are not the same thing," he said. "And whenever injustice is present, moral outrage and anger are appropriate."


The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has delivered the sermon "Confusing God and government" many times. Here are some of the historical claims made in a 2003 recorded version of that sermon and the position of many experts on those claims.

From Wright
| In context [sic]

The president will use the military against people for religious reasons.
| Hyperbole. The sermon is making a point about wars waged in the name of Islam and Christianity.

America's founders failed to give everyone equal legal rights.
| True. Slaves had no rights, and women had limited rights.

The government knew Pearl Harbor would be attacked before it happened.
| Hyperbole at best. Most historians say the military failed to connect the dots on some information but that commanders did not have warning.

The Vietnam War was justified on a pretext.
| True. Historians say that Congress's Gulf of Tonkin resolution was based on trumped-up reports of a North Vietnamese attack.

The CIA helped the South Africans put Nelson Mandela in jail.
| True. According to a retired South African agent, the CIA exchanged information about Mandela to the South Africans in exchange for the release of a CIA operative.

The government infected black men with syphilis in the Tuskegee Experiment.
| False. The black men left untreated for syphilis in the Tuskegee Experiment had been infected before going to government doctors.

The government lied about the bombing of Cambodia.
| True. During the Vietnam War, the government refused for many years to admit it was fighting in Cambodia.

The government invented the AIDS virus as a means of genocide.
| False. No scientist had the skill to create HIV in 1959, when a blood sample was taken that subsequently was found to have the virus.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research


A national survey in 2002 and 2003 asked 500 African-Americans what they believed about AIDS. Here are the percentages of those who agreed with the stated assertions:

59 percent: A lot of information about AIDS is being held back from the public
48 percent: HIV is a man-made virus
37 percent: The government is telling the truth about AIDS
27 percent: AIDS was produced in a government lab
16 percent: AIDS was created by the government to control the black population

SOURCES: Laura M. Bogart and Sheryl Thorburn, "Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention Among African Americans?" (published in 2005 in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes)