The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Race in America

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Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African American president of the United States has caused many commentators to conclude that America has entered a postracial age. The Preacher and the Politician argues otherwise, reminding us that, far from inevitable, Obama’s nomination was nearly derailed by his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, the outspoken former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. The media storm surrounding Wright’s sermons, the historians Clarence E. Walker and Gregory D. Smithers suggest, reveals that America’s fraught racial past is very much with us, only slightly less obvious.

With meticulous research and insightful analysis, Walker and Smithers take us back to the Democratic primary season of 2008, viewing the controversy surrounding Wright in the context of enduring religious, political, and racial dynamics in American history. In the process they expose how the persistence of institutional racism, and racial stereotypes, became a significant hurdle for Obama in his quest for the presidency.

The authors situate Wright's preaching in African American religious traditions dating back to the eighteenth century, but they also place his sermons in a broader prophetic strain of Protestantism that transcends racial categories. This latter connection was consistently missed or ignored by pundits on the right and the left who sought to paint the story in simplistic, and racially defined, terms. Obama’s connection with Wright gave rise to criticism that, according to Walker and Smithers, sits squarely in the American political tradition, where certain words are meant to incite racial fear, in the case of Obama with charges that the candidate was unpatriotic, a Marxist, a Black Nationalist, or a Muslim.

Once Obama became the Democratic nominee, the day of his election still saw ballot measures rejecting affirmative action and undermining the civil rights of other groups. The Preacher and the Politician is a concise and timely study that reminds us of the need to continue to confront the legacy of racism even as we celebrate advances in racial equality and opportunity.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

author of Passionately Human, No Less Divine - Wallace Best

The Preacher and the Politician is a timely and provocative book. Clearly written in accessible language, it offers general readers and specialists alike a means to understand the context of the 2008 election and the pervasive complexities of America's legacy of race and racism.

Publishers Weekly
This stimulating discussion brings needed historical perspective to 2008's election-season brouhaha over then candidate Obama's longtime minister, Wright, who was lambasted for making what were widely considered to be racially divisive remarks from his pulpit after September 11. Historians Walker and Smithers argue that the currency given to the idea of American society as “color blind” or “postracial” saddles the culture with “a dangerous level of historical amnesia.” The debate over Wright can be properly understood only in the context of the country's racial history and an anxiety among some white Americans over black “otherness” and, more specifically, how the black church “decenters whiteness as normative to Christian identity.” While generally supportive of Wright's perspective, the authors criticize the minister for an equally unhistorical and essentialist strain of Afrocentrism. While the supporting evidence can sometimes seem thin (a random blog post, for example), the authors show there is much to ponder and discuss in the relationship between Obama, Wright and the dominant culture as, against claims to the contrary, they cogently reassert race as “the central social fissure in the United States.” (Nov.)
Library Journal
While some claim that President Obama's inauguration ushered in a new postracial era, Walker (history, Univ. of California, Davis) and Smithers (American history, Univ. of Aberdeen, Scotland) disagree, here demonstrating how a long history of racism in America challenged Obama's presidential campaign. In particular, the authors address the controversy surrounding Obama's relationship with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, a relationship that almost undermined Obama's campaign. Challenging characterizations of Wright as angry and backward, the authors contextualize Wright's sermons within an American tradition of preaching that incorporates social commentary. Negative reaction to Wright's sermons against racial injustice demonstrates the persistence of racism in America. The authors also examine historical anxieties regarding racial mixing that fueled suspicions about Obama's political interests and motivations. VERDICT Readers interested in race and American history will appreciate this title, which offers an important historical perspective on race and Obama's presidential campaign. For a sociological perspective, readers may wish to turn to Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feigin's Yes We Can? White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign.—Karen Okamoto, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813928869
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 10/6/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism. Gregory D. Smithers, author of Science, Sexuality, and Race in the United States and Australia, 1780s-1890s, is Lecturer in American History at King’s College, University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

"They Didn't Give Us Our Mule and Our Acre": Introduction 1

The "Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost": Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Black Church 13

"I Don't Want People to Pretend I'm Not Black": Barack Obama and America's Racial History 53

"To Choose Our Better History"? Epilogue 99

Text of Barack Obama's March 18, 2008, Speech on Race 105

Notes 121

Index 155

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