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By William Jelani Cobb

Friday, May 2, 2008.



If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, Jeremiah Wright has just been awarded a construction contract. And that's the best case scenario - in light of his weekend blitz of media appearances there are many doubting that Wright's intentions were benign. Assuming they were, the reverend's appearance before the American National Press Club highlighted his naive belief that he could redeem his reputation by talking to the same people responsible for distorting it.

Let's be clear: Wright has been wildly mischaracterized and defamed. His comments may have been incendiary but the were largely taken out of context. Even his more controversial views coexist with a generally well-informed view of American society.


It's also natural instinct to respond to the kind malice that has been directed at him for the past six weeks. You see a fire, you want to throw water on it. But this situation is more akin to a grease fire, which means that you have to respond to it in a way that runs counter to your instincts. Instead, Wright opened the faucets and the flames have spread far beyond their original boundaries.

In the wake of his press club appearance you heard disparate rumblings that are growing into a chorus of condemnation. The difference is that these jeers are now coming from black people. He started out with the enmity of misinformed whites who knew him only through the manipulated soundbites that had been looped ad nauseum (but which were, until now, dying down.)


But now he has done nothing to diminish their scorn and has gained the contempt of a growing number of black folk who feel that he has single-handedly ruined our chance to have a black president.

That perspective isn't accurate, but it is increasingly common only a day after that appearance. Writing in the New York Times, Bob Herbert accused Wright of vengefully sabotaging Obama with the press conference yesterday; Errol Louis in the Daily News gave Wright the benefit of the doubt and said that "He couldn't have done more damage to Obama if he tried." I received an email from a friend who referred to it as "black-on-black crime" another speculated that he was secretly on Hillary Clinton's payroll.


And then there are the innumerable crabs-in-a-barrel references cycling around the internet. I'm not prepared to say that Wright was out to destroy Obama's candidacy (though that may well be the outcome) but it was entirely predictable that people would draw that conclusion.

It has to be unspeakably difficult to hear oneself lambasted and defamed for weeks on end but Wright entered that conference with a flawed agenda: the commercial media exists to exacerbate controversies, not defuse them.


The degree of truth in his words was nearly irrelevant; what matters is the way in which those words would inevitably be consumed, filtered, repackaged and distributed. If the mainstream media operated on the basis of people's good intentions we would probably have far more mutual understanding and they would have far less money.


This might have been minimized had Wright called Roland Martin, Ed Gordon, Gwen Ifill and done a roundtable of responsible black journalists or sat down with Amy Goodman or even given it a rest after the Bill Moyers interview he did days earlier. But in addressing the National Press Club the reverend was like a man who had already lost $1000 to a card hustler but decides to play again – double or nothing.

Wright was also likely buoyed by a false confidence in his own communication skills. He is a brilliant preacher but a podium is not a pulpit. He has spent the last 36 years in an arena where people literally say "amen" to your opinions, one where your credibility is virtually unquestionable.


But this week, he was talking to journalists, people who are, by definition, skeptical and start with the premise that if someone in public is talking, there's a good chance they're telling a lie. Anything Wright said was grist for the machine. He was playing an away game without recognizing that he lost home field advantage the minute he left his pulpit. Anything he said beyond "Jesus loves you" would be used against him.

It's been argued that Wright felt Obama threw him under the bus with his Philadelphia race speech, but a moment's reflection would reveal that those words constituted anything but a political stiff-arm. In Philadelphia Obama offered as subtle and daring a defense of Wright as he could have and far more than any other politician would have given in the situation. (Jocelyn Elders and Lani Guinier were dispatched by Bill Clinton for offenses far, far less damaging than Wright's video clips have been to Obama.)

The irony is that less than twenty-four hours later Wright got to see what a real denunciation looks like. Obama has been painted into a corner, in large measure a victim of his own attempt to place Wright into context. It looks all but certain that Wright will be looked at by a large segment of black America as the man who tried to ruin a dream. It will be a vast distortion of Wright's distinguished legacy but its what people will believe.

And, as any one of the media in the room could have told him, perception is reality. Jeremiah Wright has a lot of explaining to do. And that probably means that the worst is yet to come.


Dr William Jelani Cobb is an Associate Professor of History at Spelman College. He specializes in post-Civil War African American history, 20th century American politics and the history of the Cold War. He is also a contributing writer for Essence magazine, an essayist and fiction writer and the author of To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press 2007) as well as The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007).


He is editor of The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader, which was listed as a 2002 Notable Book of The Year by Black Issues Book Review.


Cobb is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from the 5th Congressional District in Georgia.


With thanks to Dr Mark Anthony Neal at New Black Man.


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