The Futility of “Colorblindness” (Part 4): Rev. Jeremiah Wright & Race in the United States

A Washington Post article reported on how a Virginia church handled the issues surrounding Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons (featured in the media and on YouTube).

In the article, a church member opined that the racial history in the United States was bad, but now it should be forgotten (emphasis mine):

[Karl] Heeter said that he has not focused on the controversy surrounding Wright’s comments and that he didn’t hear [Senator Barack] Obama’s speech. But he said the country doesn’t need to revisit its ugly racial history. “I’m not saying it wasn’t horrible, but we need to get over it,” he said.


As such, he doesn’t see the need to talk about racial differences in church. “I don’t see any point in stirring it up in an area where there don’t appear to be any problems,” he said.

Presuming you have not suffered the injustice and inhumanity (central to Rev Wright’s sermons), it is rather cavalier (for those who have not suffered systematic anti-Black discrimination) to tell those who have endured the burden to forget.

Tim Wise, an anti-racism author and activist, wrote about a conversation he had with a White male college student. Wise relates to the reader that the college student expressed a similar opinion to Heeter (above). Wise also describes how the racial discrimination in the past of the United States still has effects in the present day (emphasis mine):

[…] “Yes, we used to have a problem with racism, but that’s in the past and we need to move forward.”


That was cliche number two: this time objectively absurd and highly relevant to our discussion, which concerned what obligations (if any) the United States has to rectify the legacy of institutionalized white supremacy. Perhaps reparations for its victims? Perhaps affirmative action? Perhaps both, or neither?


“We should do nothing,” he explained, because — and I’m sure you can guess the rest — he “wasn’t even alive when all that happened, and shouldn’t have to pay for what others did.”


Cliches within cliches, all piled upon one another like driftwood, floating on an ocean of white denial, searching for a home in the minds of the self-proclaimed innocent–those who are apparently convinced that the past has no bearing on the present, that history ended sometime around 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and that inertia is only a property of the physical, but not socioeconomic universe.


But of course, the evidence of the past’s lingering grip on the present is all around us. Thanks to overt racism in housing markets, for example, which all agree ruled the day for the better part of the last century, white families were able to accumulate assets and wealth at a time when people of color were severely limited in their ability to do so.

It is tough to get progress when society is unwilling to acknowledge the impacts of anti-Black discrimination in the United States.

Post script:

Also, in the Post’s article, a church member mentioned a safe space would be needed to engage in racial discussions:

Frank Bertrand, the church’s lay leader, said the country has been ready to have a frank discussion about race for more than a generation. Yet he acknowledged it would be difficult to bring it up without setting parameters. People are more inclined to speak openly if non-threatening questions are asked and they know “what to expect and what the objectives are,” he said.

Tim Wise wrote an interesting article on the insistence on safety when discussing racial issues.

Although it isn’t usually made explicit, this admonition about the importance of safety is almost always really about making white people feel safe. After all, people of color rarely feel safe discussing race amongst members of the dominant group, and it’s pretty unlikely that a simple sentence calling for civility would change that. Black and brown folks know that race is a touchy subject, and yet they engage in race dialogue (whether formal or informal) as a matter of survival: they have to do it, safe or not, because the alternative is to continue neglecting an issue that is far too important to their everyday lives.

It also is important to consider the demographics of the United States. The vast majority of the population is White, a fact that is often understated.

United States (population: 281,421,906 (2000 Census)

Race Percentage of population Number
White 75.1% 211,460,626
Black 12.3 34,658,190
Native American 0.9 2,475,956
Asian 3.6 10,242,998