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The Politics of the Rev. Wright Controversy: A Debate with Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Adolph Reed, Jr.

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As the Reverend Wright controversy continues to dominate media attention, we host a debate with two guests. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University. A Barack Obama supporter, she was a member of the Trinity United Church, and Reverend Wright was also her pastor. And Adolph Reed, Jr. is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He makes the case against voting for Senator Barack Obama in the latest issue of The Progressive magazine. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m joined now by two guests to discuss Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barack Obama.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University and the author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. She is a contributing writer at and a Barack Obama supporter. She was a member of the Trinity United Church, and Reverend Wright was also her pastor. She joins us now from Princeton, New Jersey.

And joining us on the phone is Adolph Reed, Jr. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, including Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene and Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era. He makes the case against voting for Senator Barack Obama in the latest issue of The Progressive magazine.

Welcome to both of you.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you. Nice to be here.

ADOLPH REED, JR.: Hi. Good morning. How’s everybody doing?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Good. I’d like to begin with Melissa Harris-Lacewell. Your reaction to the three appearances of Reverend Wright over the weekend and on Monday and to Senator Obama’s speech yesterday in reaction to his comments?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I suppose more than anything, I find it shockingly painful. I’ve found this painful since Trinity United Church of Christ, a church where I was not a member but where I did attend for the seven years during the time that I lived in Chicago — since it’s been mischaracterized, since I’ve heard Jeremiah Wright sound-bited and spoken about in such harsh ways. This has been a difficult process, I think, for all of us who love and care about Jeremiah Wright, but also a difficult process for all of us who are supporters of Barack Obama, who watch these two men, both of whom we care about, trying to figure out how to work out their personal, theological and political differences in public.

What I think ultimately is that most of what Jeremiah Wright said, while speaking, while actually speaking during these appearances, are things that I agree with and things that I think represent the very best of who Jeremiah Wright is. But in his question-and-answers, he indicated a kind of egoism and a defensiveness that this is really about him. As much as he said this is not about him, it’s about the church, there was this sense of defensiveness that I think ultimately undid so much of the important work that he’d done in the talks themselves.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And his saying that the attacks on him are in essence an attack on the black church itself?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it certainly is an attack on Trinity United Church of Christ. And over the past month as this has been in the news, many of the members of Trinity have experienced really awful hate mail. They’ve experienced bomb threats at their church. I mean, it has been an attack on that church.

I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Jeremiah Wright stands in for the entire African American religious experience. Certainly, the prophetic tradition, the liberation tradition, the transformation tradition that he spoke about are an important element of African American religious thought, but there are lots of other elements. There’s no one black church to which we all go on Sunday morning. And so, I think it is unfair for him to imagine that he stands in for the whole black church and for the entire black religious experience.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Adolph Reed, I’d like to ask you, again, your reaction to both the appearances of Reverend Wright at this particular time in the campaign in these very public appearances and of Senator Obama’s reaction?

ADOLPH REED, JR.: Well, hi. Yeah, I guess the first thing I should say is, I certainly agree with Professor Harris-Lacewell’s last comment. I think the tendency both on — well, it’s an understandable one as a political move or a move of political rhetoric. I think the tendency to extrapolate from what is clearly a dog pile-on campaign at the national level against Wright and, by implication, his own parish, to extrapolate from that to — of taking that as a representative of an abstraction called the black church is problematic.

But I also — before I say anything else, I want to correct something in my column. It turns out that I mistakenly identified my old friend Katha Pollitt as one of — you know, the journalist — and others who had linked her support for Obama to her daughter. She was not, actually.

But anyway, I guess what I’d like to do is take a little bit of a step back from this and to rehearse a question that a colleague of mine, you know, another longtime black political scientist, posed about this issue, which is — and the question is, why should we be in a debate about whatever goes on in the church that a presidential candidate attends in the first place? And I think that that question, since — you know, because that question sort of speaks to what — you know, one of the things that’s happened in our politics and the way we talk about politics, and one of the reasons that I think that the Obama campaign is doomed to go down in flames either against McCain — and frankly, I don’t think that Clinton has a better chance of beating McCain, either.

But the answer to the question is that Obama opened himself to this by leaning to — on the premise that he can appeal to Republicans and to conservatives and by parading his personal faith around. And frankly — this is, I guess, the crux of my argument in The Progressive column — that this is precisely the tact that has been the undoing of every Democratic candidate since Dukakis, and I would frankly even include Clinton in that, were it not for the fact that Ross Perot siphoned votes away from the Republicans each time. I mean, this is what happened with Gore in 2000, it’s what happened with Kerry in 2004. You present yourself as electable because you can appeal to conservative voters, and then the Republicans attack you for not being a true conservative and can characterize you as someone who’s trying to put something over on the American people.

And when you stir the race factor into the Obama campaign — I’m sure, as Melissa knows as well as I, probably better, since she’s closer to that kind of political science — you know, I mean, not only have there been only two black people elected governor ever in the United States, none reelected, only three elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction and only one of those, a Republican from Massachusetts, reelected — and from what we’ve seen in gubernatorial and other statewide campaigns — Bradley’s campaign for governor in California, Andrew Young’s campaign in Georgia, you know, Harvey Gantt campaign — is that, you know, about this far out from the electorate, you know, where we’ve seen a number — a significant segment of white voters who sort of like the idea, like to savor the idea in their heads, like the sound of it in their mouths, that they’re prepared to vote for a black candidate, the closer it comes to the election of a black candidate being a reality, the more likely you’re going to find people finding ostensibly nonracial reasons to bail and to find him unlikable.

And I think that’s — frankly, I think that’s — from the standpoint of the national political race, I think that’s the most significant aspect of the Wright contrast now. I mean, I also agree with much, if not the vast majority, of what he had to say, frankly. And I think he’s also correct — Wright, that is — I think he’s also correct that Obama couldn’t embrace him, couldn’t do anything except distance himself from that largely astute analysis of American power and other contradictions of the governing regime of both parties, because of the warrants of trying to win an election in which the discursive center of gravity is much farther to the right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Melissa Harris-Lacewell, precisely, the Obama campaign, from the beginning, has represented this viewpoint that America could unite and move beyond race and class divisions, beyond the bitter political divisions of the — that have separated Americans in the past. But now you have this reality that no matter how much he espoused moving beyond race, racial contradictions have become a centerpiece now of this campaign, and to some degree, his pastor has helped to keep that now in the public eye. Your response to how this whole controversy, in essence, is disproving Obama’s original premise?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I need to disagree with many of the things that my colleague has said. I do agree with Adolph’s points about — I mean, how could one disagree, they’re historical facts — about the difficulties that African Americans have had in winning statewide office and obviously the possibility of the American presidency. But I think that’s precisely why it was so important for Senator Obama to talk about his religious faith. I mean, after all, there had to be some reason that he believed in the possibility of America being a different place.

I actually don’t think it’s a matter of parading around and pretending that he has the capacity to bring together different groups of people. He has built a national, multiracial, intergenerational coalition of men and women, working class and wealthy people. That is what has happened, whereas the other two candidates, John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have mostly built largely, vastly predominantly white coalitions. And yet, they’re not having to answer questions on race. So I think that, in fact, Barack Obama’s campaign demonstrates, in its capacity to pull voters from New York to Oregon to Philadelphia, the very capacity of black and white and brown Americans to come together.

I also think that when Barack Obama began this process and had to talk about why would he have the audacity of hope to believe that it was possible in this moment to bring together this coalition, regardless of what looked like a bitterly partisan, divided country, he had to talk about his faith in God, because it is exactly that, which I think Jeremiah Wright was leaning towards in his best moments as a minister, is to say that the amazing thing about black America has been that African Americans could look out into a world as enslaved people, as Jim Crowed people, as people who saw no empirical evidence that God in fact loved them, and believe anyway that God loved them, that they had a right to be citizens in this country.

There is never a moment on questions of race in America where things are better before they get better. We always have to walk through the difficult process. That was true in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It is true in the Barack Obama campaign. I hate watching this happen. I know that this is about race. Yet I also know, if you’re going to be the first black president of the United States, whether it’s Barack Obama or some other person later on, you are going to have to learn to govern in the context of racial storms. It is never going to happen that the media and the rest of the country is all going to stand up and give you a standing ovation: “Good job for getting past race.” You’re going to have to walk through race to be on the other side of it. So I actually think the connection of race and religion are fundamental to how African Americans have the hope to engage in American politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Adolph Reed, you’ve been critical of the progressive credentials of Senator Obama and of everything from his community organizing experience to some of his political views. Could you explain your views on that?

ADOLPH REED, JR.: Well, yeah. I mean, I want to say a couple things. I mean, one is, yeah, I don’t think that what Obama — well, I tend much more to Doug Henwood’s view, that what Obama has put together is not so much a coalition as a fan club, right? I mean, you don’t build a movement around a political campaign. I know I’ve heard people say that, well — you know, Kool-Aid drinkers have said that, well, you know, this could be — he could set in motion forces like those that moved FDR in a progressive direction, those that moved JFK in a progressive direction. But as Will Jones, the historian at the University of Wisconsin, has pointed out, you know, that comparison fails, because in each of those cases there were dynamic, rooted social movements that had been pushing for progressive agendas with popular bases on the ground prior to the election of the president. You know, you can’t compare —- frankly, I think the comparison of the Obama coalition to either, you know, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Greensboro sit-ins or the Gastonia textile strike, you know, just fall completely flat, because this is a candidate— centered politics.

I think it’s also the case that — well, I mean, the connection of race and religion, I think, also very much disturbs me. I mean, there’s no intrinsic black American religious experience. I think there are a lot of us who don’t have any religion whatsoever and don’t really care about it and don’t especially want to see it in public life. And I think that’s a — you know, that’s a stance and a mood and a disposition that’s as culturally authentic among black people as anything else, if there were such a thing as cultural authenticity, which I don’t believe.

Finally, you know, the premise that our politics is — at the national level somehow has been characterized by partisan division just flies in the face of everything that we’ve seen over the last twenty-five years. I mean, what have progressives been complaining about, right? That we have basically two wings of a single party, right? It was the Clinton administration and the Democrats who have led — who have polished off the destruction of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to direct provision of income support for the poor, to direct provision of low-income housing, that led to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, that opened up the dotcom boom, and so — and so on, that’s been as committed to a regime of public advocation and service provision as Republicans have.

And if anything, the contention that the candidate can bring us all together despite our partisan differences is the same thing that the Democrats have been claiming consistently since at least, you know, Dukakis, to be post-partisan, to be post-political. And frankly, I think it appeals — it’s an appeal that gets greatest traction among people who want to take politics out of politics, ultimately.

And I should say, Juan, too, I mean, that I realize that my response was not directly responsive to the question that you put. And that’s primarily because I don’t think that Obama — you know, that the questions about his character and his biography are all that meaningful. I mean, as I said in the same column, you know, I don’t think anybody who aspires to an office like that is going to be somebody you want to have for your brother-in-law or for your sister-in-law. I mean, I think that ultimately those character questions are misplaced. I mentioned this other perspective in my column partly just to deflate the sense that this guy could walk on water and was a whole new kettle of fish. He’s not. He’s another Democratic politician, as capable of good as the rest of them and as capable of bad as the rest of them.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Sure. And I must say —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Melissa Harris-Lacewell?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I do agree with Adolph that there is no question, Barack Obama does not walk on water. It’s not even clear to me that that would be the standard by which we would choose a president. I do think that there is a very easy place to stand as a progressive intellectual, and that is on the sidelines of American politics, shaking an angry fist at how the process works. And I understand and respect it. I -— I mean, no one is a more beautiful, critical writer than Adolph Reed. I appreciate the ways in which he pushes us and hopefully drags us towards the left in this country.

On the other hand, here are our options: John McCain, a conservative Republican who has moved to the right in order to win his party’s nomination; Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is part of this Clinton administration, which Adolph Reed has just told us was part of this kind of entire process of moving the Democratic Party towards the right and who has ruthlessly deployed race and gender in this campaign towards her own benefit; and then there’s Barack Obama. Does he walk on water? Certainly not.

But are those of us who have decided to be part of the process, to engage in the questions of American electoral politics, simply hoodwinked and bamboozled and drinking the Kool-Aid? Absolutely not. We’re making a choice about what we believe is possible in our country. And my only point is that, of course, it is an authentic African American experience to stand without hope on the sidelines, angry about the choices, but it is also an authentic African American experience and an authentic —-

ADOLPH REED, JR.: I resent that characterization by -—

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: — American one to make a choice to be part of the process to choose a candidate, for good or for evil, and to support a campaign, believing that it is the best option that we have within a difficult, difficult American process.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Adolph Reed, last word, about a minute?

ADOLPH REED, JR.: Yeah, well, look, in the first place, I mean, I find that characterization unacceptable, alright? The only two options aren’t, you know, nothing or accept the two sorry choices that one has at one’s disposal. I mean, I think it’s possible to put the electoral domain in its proper place and to do what everyone has to do in that context, however frequently one has to do it, without losing sight of the fact that what we need to be trying to do at the same time is building beyond the election cycle —-


ADOLPH REED, JR.: —- for the kind of movement that we need in this country.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: I would agree with that. I would join with you in that, absolutely.

ADOLPH REED, JR.: And frankly, I mean, you know, I think that the game is over at this point. I don’t think that either one of these candidates actually is going to be able to beat McCain. I think they’re both vulnerable in precisely the same ways and that if Clinton gets the nomination, she’s going to be undone by McCain in the same way that Obama will be. I think that the question really is which one we’ll be worse off with as a failed Democratic nominee. And I think partly because of the sort of racial narratives that are likely to attach within rightwing circles in the Democratic Party of an Obama defeat, as well as the subsequent role that he’d be likely to play in public life, that from the standpoint of progressive interests, we will ultimately be worse off with Obama as a defeated candidate than with Clinton as a defeated candidate.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Come on, Adolph. You need a little hope. Come on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On that note, we’re going to leave the debate. I want to thank Adolph Reed, Jr., professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University.

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