Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




May 8, 2008

Last week—just as I was in the middle of writing my column about the calls for Illinois Senator Barack Obama to go for a knockout blow in the Democratic presidential primaries—the latest round of national clamor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue was breaking. This was prompted first by Rev. Wright’s appearances on Bill Moyers and his speeches at the National Press Club and the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and then by Senator Barack Obama’s followup press conference in which he broke, once and for all, with his former pastor.

And so, once more, half the nation seemed to want to talk about the issue of race, with the subject burning hot and heavy on blogs, in newspaper columns and on every national news and talk show. It was hard to ignore, but I did. I watched, briefly, the nationally-televised press conference where Mr. Obama declared that he was "outraged by the comments that were made and saddened by the spectacle [created by Mr. Wright in his comments].” Then I turned back to the subject I was working on.

I have been deeply involved in the issue of race and America for all of my adult life, for many years as a full-time worker in the African-American Freedom Movement, also as a columnist for various newspapers in the Deep South and the West. I have spoken on the issue of race during those times when seemingly everyone in the country was talking about it, and I have spoken on the issue of race during periods when a majority of the nation wished it would simply go away. Race has often been the subject of previous UnderCurrents columns. Almost always, I welcome a discussion on the subject.

But not this time.

In recent years, there has a developed a pattern to our race discussions. They tend to come when we hear someone say something on the issue that some large portion of the population finds outrageous—the comedian-producer Bill Cosby, Los Angeles Dodger baseball executive Al Campanis, oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Former United States Senator George Allen calling an East Indian volunteer of his Senatorial opponent a “macaca, or monkey, taken from the Belgian colonialist slur for Congolese. Or Rush Limbaugh saying he mistook Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagarosa, a Latino, for a shoeshine boy. Or Mr. Wright.

I am not trying to equate the comments of these men, one with the other. I am only pointing out the fact that these days, we tend to talk as a nation about somebody talking about race, therefore, but not about the actual underlying issue itself.

Do you need examples? They are legion.

Late in April, while the Obama-Wright controversy was beginning to hit full stride, the Alameda County Public Health Department quietly released the executive summary of a study on health and social inequity in Alameda County.

In its opening lines, the health department’s executive summary flatly, unemotionally, points out the grim realities of race and class inequities in our local community: “Certain groups of people in Alameda County are getting sick and dying prematurely from ‘unnatural causes,’” the summary begins. “In Alameda County, access to proven health protective resources like clean air, healthy food, and recreational space, as well as opportunities for high quality education, living wage employment, and decent housing, is highly dependent on the neighborhood in which one lives.”

The health department study executive summary goes on to lay out a stark example of these inequities: “Compared with a White child in the Oakland hills,” the report concludes, “an African American born in West Oakland is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature or low birth weight, seven times more likely to be born into poverty, twice as likely to live in a home that is rented, and four times more likely to have parents with only a high school education or less. As a toddler, this child is 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations. By fourth grade, this child is four times less likely to read at grade level and is likely to live in a neighborhood with twice the concentration of liquor stores and more fast food outlets. Ultimately this adolescent is 5.6 times more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend a four-year college than a White adolescent. As an adult, he will be five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, twice as likely to be hospitalized for and to die of heart disease, three times more likely to die of stroke, and twice as likely to die of cancer. Born in West Oakland, this person can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a White person in the Oakland Hills.”

But not by gunfire, which is the death cause getting the most attention in the newspapers and other media these days. According to a statement by Sandra Witt, Alameda County Deputy Director of Public Health, “homicides do influence the average life expectancy, but in West Oakland it is by only one year.”

My guess is that the conditions outlined in the Alameda County Health Department study are not unique to Alameda County, but are replicated across the country, and that the only unique thing present is that Alameda County is one of the few communities to conduct such a study and put the information out for the public to see.

But there is no Alameda County outrage over the West Oakland African-American child dying 15 years early from asthma and heart disease—nor national outrage over the African-American child in West Texas, or South Carolina, or Gary Indiana, or the Bronx, New York who suffers the same health inequities.

Who cries for these African-American children?

Let us say, just to advance the discussion a bit, that one of the persons in the country speaking forcefully about health inequities in the African-American community—not the only one speaking about it, but an important national voice—is Mr. Obama’s old pastor, Mr. Wright.

Let us say that Mr. Wright looked at the high cancer rates in the South Louisiana bayou country where my father’s people were enslaved—Cancer Alley, it is called locally—or the equally high health disparity problems in North Richmond, home of the Bay Area’s oil refineries, where some of my mother’s people settled, or the high asthma rates in West Oakland, where my great-grandmother lived… Let us say Mr. Wright looked at such conditions around the country, and saw them not as accidental, but as collusion between industry and government, concentrating low income African-Americans and Latino Americans in neighborhoods with heavily polluting industries so that higher income—and predominantly White—neighborhoods are not affected.

And suppose Mr. Wright chose to preach sermons on such subjects in the Chicago church that Mr. Obama belonged to and attended.

Yes, to some, Mr. Wright’s theories appear outlandish, and conspiracy-theorish. But there was once a theory—considered wild and outlandish at the time, during the Depression—that the U.S. Public Health Service was deliberately withholding treatment from African-American men infected with syphilis in order to study the long-term effects of the disease on the men—such long-term effects being horrible, horrific, and leading to a death comparable to that experienced by late-stage AIDS patients. We now know that the practice actually took place, and was called the Tuskegee Experiment. There was once a theory that during the civil rights era, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a program that targeted African-American leadership for “removal.” We now know that “leadership removal” program by the FBI code name COINTELPRO. There are many such theories once considered wild that have turned out to be true. There are other such theories that have turned out to be myth.

How do we find out the difference?

Despite Mr. Obama’s assertions to the contrary, one can imagine that the subject came up during private discussions with these two bright and forceful men—Mr. Obama and Mr. Wright.

We do not know how such conversations went—they remain private—but the assumption by those who have been loudly calling on Mr. Obama to break his ties with Mr. Wright is that Mr. Wright was the alpha male in this pack, and that he was influencing Mr. Obama down a dark path. But suppose it was just the opposite. Suppose Mr. Obama, with a racial experience far different from Mr. Wright, was the one doing the influencing, leading Mr. Wright to a different view. Or suppose, as is often the case among equals, the two were learning from each other, Mr. Obama learning from Mr. Wright the painful psychological history of African-Americans, Mr. Wright learning from Mr. Obama a tolerance and a hope for the future come from one who bridges the racial divide.

We will never know how such conversations would go, because we have cut them off and forced an end to this dialogue, declaring—as a nation—that in this racial discussion, there are some voices that are “legitimate,” and some voices that must not be heard.

Nixon can go to China. The Arab countries should sit down with the Israelis for settlement settlement. The South African Black Freedom Fighters can come to terms with the Afrikaaners and together, work rebuild a country free of racial barriers. But Barack Obama should not associate himself with Jeremiah Wright. And so—if one believes that Mr. Wright is wrong—he is left forever out of the fold, like those West Oakland African-American children, never thought important enough that his views should be considered and, if some people think it necessary, challenged.

And how, exactly, does this help us to overcome our racial past, bridge our racial divide, and make sure those West Oakland African-American children lives out their full time? Or, perhaps, that's not the goal at all.

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