By Alan Bean
I frequently tell audiences how our family was virtually excommunicated from polite society when we questioned a corrupt drug bust in Tulia, Texas. I write about this bewildering experience in my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas. In the eyes of respectable, church-going folk, we were just flat wrong. From this mainstream perspective, our stand looked crazy, illogical, and possibly even demonic.
Moral perception involves a subtle interplay between personal experience and community narrative, the value-laden stories we grow up listening to. The Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story is a classic example of a value-laden story; so is the story of Rosa Parks, the Black seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus. Community narratives are the stories that define a culture. If you are part of the culture, you hear the stories.
Both personal experience and community narrative vary tremendously from culture to culture. In Black communities, for instance, children grow up hearing stories about the need to persevere in the face of prejudice and rejection. Personal experiences are interpreted through a narrative lens fashioned by this community narrative. “Oh, so that’s what daddy was talking about,” we tell ourselves.
In White culture, community narrative tends to validate authority figures and the social status quo. “Police officers are there to protect you, Johnny,” White parents tell their children, “so you shouldn’t be afraid of them. I know that gun looks scary, but he will only use it on the bad guys.” In general, personal experience bears out this expectation.
You hear very different stories in Black and Latino communities. Authority figures aren’t demonized in the moral narratives that circulate in minority communities, but they are viewed with a measure of suspicion. You don’t always call the police when something bad goes down on the street; innocent people might get hurt. And when a family member is facing trial no one expects equal justice. Personal experience tends to validate this community narrative.
One consequence of being excommunicated from Tulia’s respectable white community was spending a lot of time with Black and Latino residents. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Albuquerque witnessing a debate between Asa Hutchison of the Drug Enforcement Administration and New Mexico governor Garry Johnson. We were primarily there to talk to both sides about what was happening in Tulia.
The planes hit the Twin Towers just as we were packing for our return trip and we listened to updates on public radio all the way back to Tulia. In the van with me were several members of Tulia’s black community, most of them associated with the Church of Christ. They were appalled by events in Manhattan, but they weren’t surprised. In fact, they wondered why it had taken so long. A simple phrase was repeatedly endlessly, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
I thought of that road trip seven years later when Jeremiah’s incendiary rhetoric played a central role in the electoral campaign between John McCain and Barack Obama. “No, no, no,” Wright roared, “Not ‘God bless America. “God damn America.”
When I first saw the clip of Reverend Wright in full cry I was reminded of Billy Graham’s remark that if God didn’t punish America He would have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah. Wasn’t Jeremiah Wright saying much the same thing?
Yes and no. When Billy Graham suggested that the wrath of God would soon fall on America he was speaking out of the moral narrative he grew up hearing in Baptist circles in North Carolina. Like ancient Israel, America is called to be a chosen people, a city set upon a hill. But we will only be blessed insofar as we remain faithful to our calling. Our tolerance for lewd music, R-rated movies, gambling and general debauchery is a rejection of our Godly birthright and will inevitably lead to divine judgment.
Jeremiah Wright was thinking of a different community narrative when he delivered his infamous sermon in the wake of 9-11. America flatters itself as a beacon of democracy, but we prop up tin pot dictators in to enhance the profits of multinational corporations even if it spells untold suffering for millions of people. Did we think God would turn a blind eye to such cruel hypocrisy forever?
Graham and Wright applied the same Deuteronomic logic to very different facts. One was lionized for speaking hard truths; the other was demonized as an anti-American racist. Until you step into a Black barber shop and ask the brothers for their take.
From the dominant White perspective (liberal and conservative) Jeremiah Wright was talking crazy. How could anyone be so insensitive in the wake of the worst national disaster in recent memory?
This explains why a super PAC funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts plans to use the president’s historic ties to Jeremiah Wright to bring about ‘The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama’. The assumption is that Wright’s “God Damn America” rhetoric is so extreme that White Democrats will dissociate from the president while Black America will be silenced.
If this ad airs (and since a prototype has been leaked to the media, there is a chance it may not) Black America will not take it lying down. Instead, attempts will be made to humanize Reverend Wright by placing his remarks in social and historical context.
I hope the ad envisioned in the prototype never materializes; but if it does, the moral divide separating Black and White America will be more apparent than it has been since the halcyon days of the Civil Rights Movement.
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