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Obama, Wright, and the Black Church

Prof. Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago talks to Paul Jay about Rev. Wright’s statements about Farrakhan and AIDS, and the effect his comments have had on Senator Obama’s presidential campaign.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: One of the things that Wright has been really attacked on is what he said about Minister Farrakhan. Many people see Farrakhan as a kind of racist, his statements, some of the statements about Jews and other things. He’s been at various times a black separationist, the movement has. And from the other side, there’s always been a critique about the role of the Farrakhan movement with Malcolm X. How do you explain Wright’s sort of accommodation with Farrakhan?

PROF. DWIGHT HOPKINS, DIVINITY SCHOOL, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: Well, we are standing on the south side of Chicago. And here we have a lot of conditions as far as jobs, unemployment, public school, health, transportation, you know, subprime mortgage obviously disproportionately affecting negatively black communities. And so what happens in those sort of depressed but hopeful communities as the Black communities of America [is] all types of institutions and people and organizations come up to take on those issues. And so historically what the Nation of Islam has been known for is to really go into a lot of the prisons and deal with a lot of black men, and also black women, and then provide jobs, detoxify them when they come out, and then also help them—you know, this is sort of patriarchal thing, but also helps them to deal with the family, stable there, bring in income. So that’s their presence in the Black communities of America, Farrakhan’s The Nation of Islam. And then you have Black churches like Trinity who are concerned about personal healing, but also about social justice and serving the community. And so you have these two different forces, the Nation of Islam and Trinity of the south side of Chicago, working on similar issues. And so people run into each other. But the message from Trinity is one of forgiveness and love and tolerance, and that’s certainly not what people usually consider the Nation of Islam’s message. When he was asked that question, I think at the National Press Club, there was no critique, no differentiation. Is it simply ’cause it’s considered a contradiction within the family, and you don’t talk outside in terms of your criticism? But why not have a more frank statement about it?

HOPKINS: Yeah, I think maybe that’s the politics, the political part of Wright coming out. He doesn’t want to get into a situation where he and his church or the churches that he represents in the Black community are pitted against Farrakhan. I think that’s probably—I mean, it’s political, but also, I mean, it is the love-forgiveness piece too—it’s sort of religious and political. Yeah, he’s not going to, in a national press conference, which has America and the world watching, not going to talk about how he’s against or critiqued or distanced himself from Farrakhan, because he probably sees that as not the proper stage. Now, in the pulpit, inside the family, he’s talked about, okay, how did our ancestors get over in slavery? You know, how did people get through segregation? You know, how did Big Mama, you know, all those sort of cultural folk names and tales one uses in the Black church, we got over, he says, not from Buddha, not from Farrakhan, not from Nation of Islam, not even from Malcolm X, which is—ooh!—but through Jesus and the old ship of Zion, which is a synonym for the Black church. So I think it’s the context and the platform. He’s not going to use that analysis on Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam at the National Press Club. But as far as trying to explain people in his culture, his ambit, which is the pulpit, he can critique Farrakhan.

JAY: And what about his position on the possibility the American government deliberately spread or could have deliberately spread HIV/AIDS among African-Americans?

HOPKINS: Two things. Factually, I haven’t read anything that says that, and I factually haven’t seen any references on the part of Rev. Wright, either in his speaking, preaching, or writing. But as far as people’s feeling mixed in with other facts, there’s a long history, from colonial times to the 20th century, where medical associations in conspiracy with the government have operated on the black body, both physically and experimentally. Of course, everybody knows of the Tuskegee Experiment. And I always mention this—I may have mentioned this before—there’s a great book called Medical Apartheid, and it’s by a person who’s been a research fellow at Harvard University. It’s the mainstream press. But this book looks at this issue of how Black bodies have been experimented on since thirteen colonies up to the 20th century. And she mentions HIV/AIDS, not as a definitive thing, but she has the documentation, because she’s a scholar, to provide the evidence on this feeling that a lot of Black folk have that you can’t trust the government when it comes to the healing and health of the Black body. When I lived in Manhattan for 11 years, there was a whole program with sterilizing African-American women and Puerto Rican-American women. There was a huge demonstration. So HIV/AIDS, factually I have never seen any facts or reference, but there’s this other fact in the historical memory of these Black bodies which now constitute the Black community, of this discrepancy between the Hippocratic code of the doctors in the medical profession and the white supremacists’ code on the Black body.

JAY: In Rev. Wright’s recent comments, the defense of the church seemed to quite trump any consequences this might have on the Obama candidacy. Certainly, for the Obama candidacy, it would have been better if he hadn’t said anything. The congregation seems to be able to live with both of this, that it was the right thing to defend the church, and it’s the right thing to defend Obama. But there is a contradiction there. Wright seems to have to some extent damaged the candidacy. Wright clearly had to have this in mind himself when he said these things. He knew this was going to have enormous consequences.

HOPKINS: Not necessarily. When, you know, we were at the Press Club on Monday, and Wright said he came up for three things: one, because he was being mischaracterized as a clergy person; two, he came up because he felt that his church, Trinity United Church of Christ, was being mischaracterized; and the third thing, when he got very visceral, he said, "The faith of my mama, the church of my mama is being mischaracterized." I don’t think Rev. Wright had any idea of the fallout. I mean, what has happened is we have a pastor of a local church in America who’s now intergalactic. He doesn’t have a press staff; he doesn’t have a security staff of the sense of a politician running for office; I mean, you know, he doesn’t have this apparatus to handle or the experience to handle the type of media onslaught that has come at him, whether positive or negative. You know, that’s not what he does. He is a pastor who brings people’s souls to Christ and serves the people on the south side, defending the poor. And now, all of a sudden, he’s got—woom—a situation where he can’t even walk around.

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