Thank you, Mike Huckabee.
It was getting to be a bit much, the marathon denunciations of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright by the professional chatterers of FOX News, MSNBC and the like. Their screams of high dudgeon had grown shrill, their show of moral affront was wearing thin. And then Huckabee, invited by MSNBC last week to condemn Wright’s bitter words, invoked instead the era of racial segregation that shaped Barack Obama’s former pastor.
“And you know what?” he said. “Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment, and you have to just say, ‘I probably would, too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder, had it been me.’”
It bears repeating: a black Mike Huckabee would be more angry than Jeremiah Wright, not less. It was an admission of startling, unexpected insight and, dare I say, Christian generosity. A conservative white man invited white men and women to project themselves into dark skin, to imagine how bitter they might be, had they come of age in an era where law, religion, media and custom said they were less than truly human beings.
Huckabee’s words helped me crystallize something I had been struggling to define as I watched the controversy mushroom and metastasize. I could no more defend what Rev. Wright said than I could defend what Don Imus, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson or Tim Hardaway said. And yet as the controversy swelled, overtaking Obama’s pastor, Obama’s speech, Obama’s grandmama, something was nagging me and I didn’t know what it was.
Now I do. There is to all this a sense of the overdone.
Methinks they doth protest too much.
And here, I’ll repeat for emphasis: I intend no defense of what Rev. Wright said. After all, he said obnoxious things: the AIDS virus was created by the government; Louis Farrakhan is a great man; God damn America. Anyone who objects to that is justified. Anyone who asks why Obama remained in Wright’s church for 20 years raises a fair question.
But on the other hand: when Ronald Reagan — not an associate, but Reagan himself — stood on soil soaked with the blood of three murdered civil rights workers and declared his support of “state’s rights,” was he required to make a major speech to explain? When George W. Bush spoke at racist Bob Jones University, when John McCain supported the Confederate battle flag, was there a full-fledged media frenzy? Was there marathon, wall-to-wall coverage of the type we have lately seen? Of course not.
Some of us are using this controversy to peddle a false equivalence, decrying Wright’s perceived bigotry and pretending moral wounds on par with those inflicted by Imus, Richards, Gibson and Hardaway. And failing — or refusing — to understand that those wounds derive their hurtful power not simply from what was said, but from the fact that those same things have been said with impunity for years turning to centuries to justify denying that black people, Jewish people and gay people were people at all. A straight, white, Christian American male does not have access to the kind of pain that causes. For which he should be thankful.
So, when Wright claims a federal conspiracy to spread AIDS among blacks, you might say, well, that’s crazy. And it is. About as crazy as a federal conspiracy to use black men as unwitting guinea pigs for 40 years to test what happens when syphilis goes untreated. Which, of course, happened.
This is the context that has been missing from the high-minded denunciations and statements of mortal offense. This is what has gone unspoken.
Does it excuse what Jeremiah Wright said? No.
But it sure as heck explains.
Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.