Currently up for numerous Tony awards is a splendid revival of the 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” It’s worth remembering that its theme, examining racial and cultural prejudice, was highly controversial; indeed, there was a legislative challenge to its decency in Georgia. Key to the show is the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which the authors insisted would stay in even if it meant the show’s failure.
In that song, a young American lieutenant, unexpectedly in love with a Tonkinese girl, realizes he can’t marry her and bring her home to a country that would be appalled by an interracial union and a family that would be dismayed by a wife below his social class. The lyrics resonate far beyond marriage per se to prejudice and racism generally:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Cut to 2008. The encouraging news is that among young people particularly, race and ethnicity almost doesn’t register. Focus groups and polls suggest most people are clearly “over” race. They say what matters are someone’s attributes, skills, and character. Most believe that any preferences should be based on need, not ethnicity.
Yet this progress, apparently, hasn’t touched Trinity United Church of Christ, the church Barack Obama — now the Democrats’ nominee for U.S. President — attended for over 20 years. There the “black liberation theology” of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright prevailed, reiterated for us all this past week in Father Michael Pfleger’s racist rant about whites generally and Hillary Clinton in particular.
It is this that makes Barack and Michelle Obama’s decision to be part of the life of this church for so long so disturbing. It isn’t simply the content of the sermons — lots of us have endured sermons with which we disagree. It isn’t Wright’s radical views — by all reports, he is charismatic and personally well liked, and his more controversial sermons contain legitimate grievance mixed with factually mistaken history and wacky conspiracy theories. Most of us know someone like that and just try to steer clear of those issues and be polite. Moreover, we understand that politicians particularly have to smile and make common cause where they can, and that endorsing and being endorsed are not equivalent.
No, what’s disturbing is that the Obamas have children. And presumably they know other people in that congregation have children. People take children to church precisely to help inculcate them with the church’s values. We now have some vivid examples of the received wisdom, what directly or indirectly gets drummed into each dear little ear from year to year at Trinity United, how they are told to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade, how they are taught before they are six or seven or eight (or older) to hate all the people their fellow congregants hate.
This is a long way from Obama’s “what unites us” message — if anything, it is an old and toxic wine in a new bottle. Some assert that blacks can’t be racist, as though black racism is so justified that it ceases to be racism. But anyone familiar with the occasional stigma in this country towards those darker than a paper bag by lighter-skinned African-Americans knows that racism and prejudice can infect any soul of any shade.
Obama has been adept at recognizing when his far-left base conflicts with the larger, all-embracing image he wants to present. Perhaps that is why he finally resigned from Trinity United. One can only hope that, given his speech on race in Philadelphia, combined with his repeated problems of long-time associates who surprise him with their views, that he will lead the effort to take a bolder step. Much as Lyndon Johnson’s need to change how he was perceived on race issues moved him to endorse the Civil Rights Act, Obama could urge the nation to move beyond race-consciousness to the race-transcendence Martin Luther King advocated, but which was bypassed in our well-intended attempts at rapid atonement. One can only hope.