Monday, March 31, 2008

Tell it, sistah!

Can I Just Tell You?

by Michel Martin

Expect Obama to Walk Out on Wright? Spare Me

Sen. Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Tell Me More, March 26, 2008 ·

It probably won't shock you to know that when I was in high school, I was an avid member of my school's debate team. I wasn't the first African-American on the team, but because kids' interests can change, I was often the only one. That's not so surprising, as there were not that many kids of color at my school back then, just as there were not that many in most of the other schools we competed against in our part of New England.

Frankly, I didn't think about it all that much — not until one debate competition, when my team was hosted for dinner at the home of one of our competitors, a dinner at which I was promptly invited by my young, white host to socialize with his black maid in the kitchen.

My teammates, with whom I hung out and lived 24-7 because we went to a boarding school, did and said nothing.

My coach, a faculty member who was extremely well regarded in debate circles — and was, in fact, a relative of a courageous civil rights advocate in the Kennedy Justice Department — did and said nothing. And, in fact, he said nothing to me about this for more than 20 years, until he called me up out of the blue one day to apologize for letting me down.

"I just did not know what to say," he said.

I mention all of this because I have had it up to here with members of the commentariat who keep lecturing us about how they would never have tolerated the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's more incendiary sermons, and they wonder why Barack Obama did. They would have walked on out [of the church].

Can I just tell you? I don't think so.

Setting aside the fact that I question how many of these people have actually darkened the door of any house of worship in recent years — because I hope they would not be so smug and cynical if they had — let me just posit the theory that if the tables had been turned, if it had been their church, their family, their friends, their turf, they would have sat right there.

They would have sat right there just like aides to Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman sat right there when their bosses privately used the "N" word and other negative language to talk about the African-Americans on whose behalf they were often working, language which has been well documented on White House recording devices.

They would have sat right there just like the Rev. Billy Graham did when Richard Nixon used anti-Semitic language.

They would have sat right there just like countless good people do when their friends tell racist jokes, or when their employers refuse to return phone calls of applicants they suspect might be black or brown, or refuse to rent apartments or work with people of color.

I know this because, over the years, I have met too many white people who have told me how they have struggled to find their voices when language or behavior emerges from people they otherwise care about — who they believe to be good people — but who, nevertheless, say or do things they think are wrong.

I know this because I have met too many brown people who have struggled to find their voices when someone they care about has made an anti-Semitic or homophobic remark, and they agonize over how much to object, knowing that those views are deeply rooted. And they fear causing a breach over something they think won't change.

Obama has explained his relationship with his minister at some length. One is free to accept or reject his explanation. But please — spare me the moral outrage about what you would have done or would do in that situation. And just do it.

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