Rev. Wright, Senator Obama and the Ghosts in the Room

By Richard Land
Mar 22, 2008

Whenever Americans discuss the issue of race, there are always ghosts in the room with us—the ghosts of racial sins and racial hurts from our shared and tragic past.

Race has always been the serpent in the American Eden, the birth defect in our historic genetic code.

Senator Obama’s speech earlier this week used one of my favorite quotes from William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past,” to make this point. Living in Mississippi, Faulkner understood the “Ghosts of Mississippi” always present in the room and part of every racial interaction. And that’s true of not just Mississippi, but the entire nation as well.

This column originally posted at Beliefnet.com’s Casting Stones blog.

That is precisely why so many people have invested so much hope in Senator Obama—a candidate who is “black,” but not the black candidate—a man who has empathy for the hurt of all sides of our American racial tragedies.

What other American politician who is African-American could, or would, have the courage to articulate the frustrations of working-class whites as Sen. Obama did in his speech. Senator Obama acknowledged with empathy those millions of white Americans who:

“…don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race” and when such Americans “hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.”

When Senator Obama acknowledges and understands such feelings, he is performing a healing act for the entire nation. Also, there is no question Senator Obama “feels the pain” of those generations of African-Americans who have been victims of extreme prejudice and destructive discrimination.

Senator Obama is absolutely right that we need to have a productive and constructive conversation about the past, the present and the future of race in this country. That is the only pathway toward the post-racial future which many hope Senator Obama represents—a country in which people truly will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We must talk about these things honestly, openly, and with great intentionality. I am reminded of a scene in Walk the Line, the 2006 film biography of John and June Cash. He asks her to marry him, and she reminds him of the obstacles in their path:

June: “Well how’s it gonna work, John? Where we gonna live? What about my girls? What about your girls? What about your parents, John? Your daddy won’t even look at me.”

John: “June, that stuff will just work itself out.”

June: “No, it does not work itself out! People work it out for you and you think it works itself out.”

We, as Americans, must work these things out. If we don’t, others with less hopeful and constructive agendas will work them out for us in less healing and far more hurtful ways.

And in working these things out on our journey to a post-racial future, Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s hateful, hurtful statements must be recognized as echoes of the ghosts of the past that we must overcome in order to go where the vast majority of our nation, “red, yellow, black and white” and every combination in between earnestly desires to go.

That’s the dream that can truly dispel the ghosts forever.

This column originally posted at Beliefnet.com’s Casting Stones blog.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission works to improve racial and ethnic relations in America and around the world. To learn more about this important issue, additional resources are available here. If your church is interested in purchasing materials on racial relations, please visit our online bookstore and erlc.com.

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