Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wright's a product of privilege, not poverty

Morton A. Klein

The whole world knows that for nearly 20 years, Sen. Barack Obama has attended Chicago's Trinity United Church and that his pastor is Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In his speech on race last week, Obama criticized some of Rev. Wright's statements, but also essentially excused and rationalized Wright's sermons.

He summarized the reality for many African Americans growing up in past decades -- inferior, segregated schools; discrimination; lack of economic opportunity, inability to provide for one's family -- before stating, "This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African Americans of his generation grew up." Half right. African Americans suffered, many even horrifically, in the past. But Rev. Wright was not one of them.

How do I know? It happens that, as a Philadelphian, I attended Central High School -- the same public school Jeremiah Wright attended from 1955 to 1959. He could have gone to an integrated neighborhood school, but he chose to go to Central, a virtually all-white school that attracts the most serious academic students in the city. The school then was about 80 percent Jewish and 95 percent white. The African American students, like all the others, were there on merit. Generally speaking, we came from lower- and middle-class backgrounds. Many of our parents had not received a formal education and we tended to live in row houses. In short, economically, we were roughly on par.

I attended Central a few years after Rev. Wright, so I did not know him personally. But I knew of him and I know where he used to live -- in a tree-lined neighborhood of large stone houses in Philadelphia's Germantown section. Rev. Wright's father was a prominent pastor and his mother was a teacher and later vice principal and disciplinarian of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, also a distinguished academic high school. Two of my acquaintances remember her as an intimidating and strict disciplinarian and excellent math teacher. In short, Rev. Wright had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing. It was hardly the scene of poverty and indignity suggested by Sen. Obama to explain what he calls Wright's anger and what I describe as his hatred.

In recent days, we have seen clips of several of Rev. Wright's sermons, showing him declaring "God Damn America," blaming America for intentionally creating the drug problem, for creating the AIDS virus, for supporting Israeli "state terrorism against Palestinians," for being responsible for causing Sept. 11, for being white supremacist and racist and for intentionally keeping people in poverty.

We have also learned that, last year, a publication affiliated with Rev. Wright's church honored with a lifetime achievement award Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has said that "Judaism is a gutter religion," that "Hitler was a very great man" and that "white people are potential humans, they haven't evolved yet." In fact, Rev. Wright accompanied Farrakhan in the 1980s on a visit to Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, which was then illegal under U.S. law.

One can excuse anger, but no one should rationalize hatred. That is why the Zionist Organization of America, of which I am national president, believes that it is insufficient to simply disagree with the views of hateful race supremacists -- it is necessary to disassociate from them.

Imagine for a moment if a white candidate for high office attended for 20 years a church led by a white supremacist pastor who railed regularly against blacks and accused them of bringing down civilization. Imagine if he honored neo-Nazi David Duke with a major award. Imagine if, when these facts emerged, the candidate said he disagreed with and criticized the pastor's statements, while also saying he was largely unaware of them.

Imagine that he also tried to rationalize these views by referring to the anger felt by impoverished whites even though the pastor himself actually grew up in comfortable circumstances. Imagine also that his pastor retired amid the praises of his congregants and successor, but that the candidate refused to quit the church while continuing to praise the pastor for his good works helping poor whites. His criticism of the pastor would hardly suffice.

This is the situation Sen. Obama now faces. I make no judgment on why he joined and stayed with Rev. Wright and his church, although I am deeply concerned that he did so. Sen. Obama would be doing the right thing and reassuring the American public in the process that he will not tolerate hate, divisiveness and anti-Americanism by quitting the church.

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

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