As the reactions to Barack Obama's speech continue to emerge, there is a striking disconnect that appears repeatedly in the pieces written by some of the liberal white supporters of Obama. Nicholas Kristof is typical. In his op-ed piece on Obama and Race in the Times this morning he addresses the different world view that blacks and whites have in America:
Many white Americans seem concerned that Mr. Obama, who seems so reasonable, should enjoy the company of Mr. Wright, who seems so militant, angry and threatening. To whites, for example, it has been shocking to hear Mr. Wright suggest that the AIDS virus was released as a deliberate government plot to kill black people.
That may be an absurd view in white circles, but a 1990 survey found that 30 percent of African-Americans believed this was at least plausible.
“That’s a real standard belief,” noted Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political scientist at Princeton (and former member of Trinity church, when she lived in Chicago). “One of the things fascinating to me watching these responses to Jeremiah Wright is that white Americans find his beliefs so fringe or so extreme. When if you’ve spent time in black communities, they are not shared by everyone, but they are pretty common beliefs.”
Occasionally, we’ve had glimpses of this gulf between white and black America. Right after the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a CBS News poll found that 6 out of 10 whites thought that the jury had reached the wrong verdict, while 9 out of 10 blacks believed it had decided correctly. Many African-Americans even believe that the crack cocaine epidemic was a deliberate conspiracy by the United States government to destroy black neighborhoods.
In the almost surreal unreflective post-modernist posing that passes for intellectual discourse among the self-designated cognoscenti, Kristof takes the widespread acceptance of paranoid conspiracy theories in a large part of the black community as evidence that whites have neglected to listen to blacks:
What’s happening, I think, is that the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation — and they are thunderstruck.
All of this demonstrates that a national dialogue on race is painful, awkward and essential. And that dialogue needs to focus not on clips from old sermons by Mr. Wright but on far more urgent challenges — for example, that about half of black males do not graduate from high school with their class.
Then maybe we can achieve our goal of getting, finally, to the point where there is “not a black America and not a white America... . There’s the United States of America.”
It is not readily apparent what point Kristof is trying to make. Is Kristof suggesting that if only we whites take the time and energy to lend credence to black paranoia, we would facilitate the more complete integration of blacks into America? I can't quite tell from the piece exactly how Kristof imagines such ideas as "the AIDS virus was released as a deliberate government plot to kill black people" or "that the crack cocaine epidemic was a deliberate conspiracy by the United States government to destroy black neighborhoods" is related to the fact that "half of black males do not graduate from high school with their class." There is a significant connection between the two data points but I suspect it is not one Kristof would allow himself to consider.
Until Kristof or anyone else can provide some evidence to show that government scientists invented the AIDS virus and then introduced it into the black community or unearth the policy papers describing how introducing Crack into black neighborhoods would somehow achieve whatever goal fevered imaginations can come up with, these ideas, along with many others that Jeremiah Wright promulgated with minimal demurral from Barack Obama, must be considered nothing more than the worst kinds of paranoid conspiracy theories. These are not just different perspectives or different opinions but bizarre and damaging fantasy structures that infect the thinking of those who hold such ideas.
Human beings are prone to believe in nonsense. We typically find ways to use our rational thinking to support our nonsense theories, and usually the nonsense we believe in is harmless so long as it doesn't interfere with our ability to work, love, and play (to use Freud's old descriptor's of mental health.) In The Value of Conspiracy Theories I described a relatively harmless conspiracy theory that is ascribed to by perhaps 40% of our British friends. JFK conspiracy theories have been a staple of the American zeitgeist for 45 years and have spawned a cottage industry and made many people quite wealthy. In these cases, the conspiracy theories reinforce some people's existing anxiety about government and also reinforce the comforting idea that life is not completely random. Even if the "they" who are in control are evil, it is a comfort to know someone is in control and knows what is going on.
Other conspiracy theories are extraordinarily damaging to the holder. Those conspiracy theories are the ones that support the holder's view that he or she is the victim of circumstances, forces, and people that are much more powerful than they, are inimical to them, and are beyond their control. Those beliefs lead to passivity and anger, and away from self reflection and responsibility.
Why should a young black man who is struggling in school put in the hard work required to learn when it is all for naught? If the "white man" is only going to keep him down, what is the point?
My family spent 16 years in an integrated community. The high school was close to 50% black. We had many neighbors who were well to do, extremely well educated, blacks. It was a distressing fact for them, one that was discussed within the community on a regular basis, that black boys from the North end (ie, the wealthy part of town) were at terrible risk once they entered the high school. If they worked hard and excelled academically, they were assailed for "acting white." It was the extremely rare youngster who was able to withstand such peer pressure; in fact, most black boys who were good students were pulled out of the school by 9th grade and sent to private schools by the parents who could afford to do so. This experience is intimately related to the black empowerment/victimization that Barack Obama's church champions.
Once a person has embraced victimhood, which includes the belief that their problems are essentially not of their own making, they are lost. The typically short sighted and cynical empowerment movement is designed to reinforce victimhood and extort reparations of one kind or another from those who have the money and the disinclination to fight back. The victim "wins" by getting what he deserves from the "man". This leaves the victim forever at the mercy of others, unable to change in ways which could enable them to live more productive and successful lives, and basing their entire sense of self on their grievances. A community that accepts such a designation can only be an abject failure. Of course, that is not the conscious goal of the black power movement, whose heirs include Jeremiah Wright, and whose enablers include Barack Obama.
If Barack Obama truly wanted to start a productive discussion about race in this country, he would talk to those black men who do not graduate from high school. He would direct his brilliant intellect and his glittering oratorical skills toward identifying the dangerous and self-defeating meta-communication that contaminates the black value system that his church professes. He would not tolerate the excuse that racism is somehow preventing them from learning. He would not presume that more money to a system that is failing will somehow make it succeed without fundamental changes in approach. He would not reaffirm to his black audience that their problems are not their responsibility.
Black Americans have a long legacy of racism to overcome. They will never overcome until they are willing to stop being victims.