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Reverend Wright and the state of racism in Pennsylvania

Reverend Wright and the state of racism in Pennsylvania

Much as I love to pretend that nasty things like racism and sexism don’t exist and go along happily thinking that everyone who votes does so because they genuinely agree with the policies proposed by their candidate, I know deep in my little progressive heart that it ain’t always so.

I continue to think that it is so more often than it isn’t, but the whole scandal over Rev. Jeremiah Wright had me worried for a while. I just couldn’t understand what everyone was so freaked out about. I mean, Pat Buchanan works as a political commentator, and Ann Coulter is a frequent guest on Fox News and nothing I’d heard from Wright was any crazier than anything the two of them had said.

But, well, people seemed bothered by it, though according to polls less so after Obama’s milestone speech on race, given right in my current hometown of Philadelphia, PA.

So I turned to someone who knows all about the history of race relations in Pennsylvania, journalist and journalism professor Linn Washington, Jr., of Temple University. Washington is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, America’s oldest African-American-owned newspaper, and a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship program.

Washington has written his own article about the Wright controversy, available at

Kaffeine Buzz: I wanted to get what you thought about Rev. Wright’s actual comments, first of all.

Linn Washington: One of the things that’s missing in this controversy about Rev. Wright is historic context. What he’s saying is accurate. So the question is, is Wright wrong in what he said, or is Wright wrong in the way he said it?

The reality is that the majority of the comments that are being raised were uttered years ago within the context of sermons, which by their very nature are emotionally charged.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

America was founded on racism. Duh! The constitution has slavery embedded in it. In Philadelphia here you can appreciate it, what do we have down at 6th and Market? We have an archeological dig at what was known as the President’s house where George Washington lived when he was President, and much of it revolves around the slaves that he kept. Does that not give some indication of the country being founded on racism?

He talks about skewed spending priorities. There was a paragraph of a sermon that was in the Inquirer last week that was characterized as being un-American, where he said that they give us drugs and they build prisons. Well, in the 1990s, the state of Pennsylvania built 11 new prisons. During that decade in Philadelphia, only one new public high school was built. According to Pennsylvania State Correctional statistics, the majority of people who come into the prisons are unemployed and undereducated. So where’s the inaccuracy there?

We studied the whole Contra cocaine issue, where the Reagan administration allied themselves with Colombian cocaine dealers to fight the Contras. That helped precipitate—it wasn’t the main cause, but it helped precipitate the cocaine-crack epidemic in the 1980s.

And as a result of that, laws were passed which had a racially disproportionate effect on African-Americans. Again, historical context. Even recent history. It was just last November that the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved new regulations that will allow a lot of people who were sentenced under these really monster sentences to be released from jail. Congress approved it.

And it was the Bush administration who at the last minute raised this red herring that you’re going to be letting violent people out of jail, despite the fact that everybody would have to go through a judicial review where prosecutors could challenge it before they could get out.

And then there was the other aspect of Wright saying that American foreign policy was the cause of 9/11. If you look at the 9/11 Commission Report, what did it say? That in the Arab world, the perception of American foreign policy fuels anger and hatred toward Americans.

KB: Not only that, but Ron Paul has been saying that on the campaign trail.

LW: You’re right. Also, the Baker commission, that just came in 2006, what did they say? The U.S. had to change its foreign policy or we’re always going to have these kinds of problems.

So what he said is not inaccurate. Now this business about Hillary Clinton, well, it’s truthful, she’s never been called a n*****. She’s never been treated as a n*****. But given the controversies around that word and given the charged atmosphere of this campaign, there’s arguable criticism of–should he have said that in the last couple of months, which he did, given its potential impact on the campaign.

But the previous statements, you know, come on, please.

But it’s the political context that they, Barack’s opponents, are trying to find any way to try to derail him so now they’re holding him accountable for what’s going on.

Fairness and Accuracy in Media, which is usually fair and accurate, recently had an article, in the past few weeks about  how John McCain actually solicited the endorsement of this Texas megachurch preacher named John Hagee. And this guy says the Catholic Church is a conspiracy. This guy is so over the top that I don’t even allow my wife to turn him on. She had him on and I was just like turn that shit off. You can look at religious stuff on Sunday morning, that’s not my thing, but not him.

There was an article that I saw last week, where someone is actually writing a book, there was an article in The Nation, about Hillary Clinton….

KB: About the Family, or the Fellowship, or whatever it’s called?

LW: Yes. But the point is that a lot of people—one guy even framed it this way, he said if everybody was forced to leave their church because of something obtuse that their pastor said in a single sermon, no church would have more than three members in it. People would be constantly leaving, because everybody along the way says something crazy.

So get Barack for what he said. And this is just my own personal beef—I’ve got a real problem with this overemphasis on what people say versus what they do. I think Geraldine Ferarro was bigoted as the day is long, but you know, so what?

I’m more concerned that Bill Clinton, in 1995 when there was the Million Man March, he ran out to Austin, Texas to deliver a major speech on racism. It was hastily put together, they didn’t announce it until two days before the Million Man March. In that speech he noted how the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist against African-Americans.

And then what, ten days later when he had an opportunity to change this crack cocaine-powder cocaine disparity, he upheld a Republican vote against the recommendation of the sentencing commission.

I’d rather we focus on what people do, but we don’t and that’s what the problem has been, historically.

You would not know that December 30, 1799, 73 black Philadelphia leaders delivered a petition to Congress, asking three things.

One, they wanted protection from fugitive slave act abuses. There was this law called the fugitive slave act that allowed slave owners to go anywhere in the country to get runaway slaves. Slave owners were coming to Philadelphia because it had the highest population of free blacks, and snatching any black person off the street claiming that they were a slave and taking them back into slavery. These were people who were free, who had either purchased their freedom or were born free.

Two, they asked for a gradual elimination of slavery. And the third thing, this is part of the language that they used. They said that if the pronouncements of the Declaration have any meaning at all, that we as men should have equal rights under the law.

Congress rejected the petition. They could’ve taken care of this problem 200 years ago, because there was a debate in Independence Hall, January 2, 1800. They could’ve cleared this up then, but they rejected the petition, in part based on the assertion that the petition was written by white Quakers, because everybody knows that blacks can’t write.

The author of the petition was a guy named Absolom Jones, who was a minister in Philadelphia, the first black to be ordained as an Episcopal minister in the United States, and he’d already written a petition to Congress in 1797.

You’ll love this one, this feeds right back into the Wright controversy. Rev. Wright is condemned as treasonous and un-American because in a sermon he said “God damn America,” because America hasn’t dealt with its racism.

During that Congressional debate in 1800, a Congressman from South Carolina, a man named Rutledge, stood up and said “Thank God for slavery.”

I’m quoting all these facts and figures, I’ve been studying this stuff recently because I’ve written a few things on it lately. But these are the things that I study and apparently a lot of my journalistic peers do not. Some of it is rather arcane, and that’s what investigative reporters are supposed to do, but some of it is just clear.

We can’t divorce the political context from this. There is a myriad of different people with different agendas. We’re not just talking about Hillary Clinton or John McCain. There’s a lot of people who would like to see the Obama train derailed. So now because he hasn’t made any missteps, they’re going to try to get him.

What was it, three weeks ago that the controversy du jour was that Louis Farrakhan endorsed him? If you listen—and it’s on YouTube—you can find the Savior’s Day speech that Farrakhan gave and he just says that he thinks Obama is a nice guy and he would like to see him succeed. But not two seconds after that, he said, “I am not telling anybody how to vote.”

And immediately after the speech when it became apparent to him that him being Farrakhan, it may be alleged that it was an endorsement, he issued a clarification saying, “I don’t want anything that I say to in any way impact this guy’s campaign.”

And this became an issue on the campaign raised by Tim Russert, a guy who backed before during and after, Don Imus.

So what is it? Well, Farrakhan is an anti-Semite. Listen, I’ve been to dozens of Farrakhan speeches. Is he caustic? Yes he is. But who is he caustic toward? In order of priority in terms of the level of pillorying he does in his speeches: the first category that he hammers on in his speeches is black leaders. Number two is black people. Number three is America, generically. Number four is white people. And then we get down to people who may be Jewish.

Farrakhan does not criticize Jews predominantly in his speeches. And you wouldn’t know that Pat Buchanan, the political commentator….

KB: Pat Buchanan who came out in 2000 and said that all those Jewish voters in Florida couldn’t have meant to vote for him because they knew he was anti-Semitic.

LW: The Anti-Defamation league has written all kinds of reports about him and he says that’s just an effort to squash debate on the subject.

Last week I went into Lexis-Nexis, and Pat Buchanan ran for President in 1996 and 2000, so I put up a time frame bracketing around the main part of the campaign, and not a single article referenced any of the ADL reports about Pat Buchanan, some of which were written in 1984 when the ADL wrote its reports about Louis Farrakhan.

It may be interesting for an enterprising reporter like yourself to try to find a UPI article that was written between June 28th and 30th of 1984, with Farrakhan and “gutter religion.” The UPI had analyzed the videotape and the audiotape and came to the conclusion that Farrakhan didn’t say what he is alleged to have said. Of course that UPI clarification didn’t get the coverage that the other thing did, and even to this day, 24 years later, he’s still being alleged to have said that, even down to the FAIR report on McCain and John Hagee, it repeats the same thing. [I could not find the article, though I did find a website that referred to it. -SJ]

KB: It just seems that once something gets into the main media narrative, it never changes. Even with the Texas primary and Texas caucuses, when CNN called the Texas caucuses for Obama and said he got more delegates in Texas, they still report Clinton as having won Texas.

LW: And there’s so many of those other stories. The Dean Scream, that killed the guy’s campaign and he didn’t really scream. You look at the whole tape and he’s saying “Keep the noise down!” But you’re right. When something becomes the accepted narrative, truth, justice, accuracy, none of that’s going to blow it away.

KB: It’s laziness, I think. To argue it is just going to be more work. I argue it all the time, but not as many people read me as watch MSNBC.  But I did want to get your comments on Obama’s speech.

LW: I thought it was a very masterful speech. I felt that while masterful, very stirring, very informative, I felt that there were some fundamental inaccuracies in the conclusions that he drew, based on historic fact, and there was some context missing.

However, I understand that he was trying to do a lot of things with that speech. Not only was it a history lesson, it was an effort to regain some political momentum, an effort to chastise Rev. Wright but not to, as some people say, “throw him under the bus.’ So he was trying to do a lot with it. Overall, it was just an incredible speech. But as this guy has shown repeatedly, he’s just an incredible speechmaker.

I really found it interesting, only because I’m from Philly so I know things that Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t know and probably don’t want to know, like the whole let’s get over this racism business. Well, okay, fine. Let’s get over it. Stop the racism and we’ll get over it. We want to get over it. The people who signed that petition in 1799, they wanted to get over it.

The Constitution Center, right, magnificent multimedia museum, opened July 4, 2003. During the year before it opened, there were continuous protests at the construction site for the Constitution Center because of the exclusion of female and minority workers and contractors. There were provisions in place that there were supposed to be certain percentages of females that got the jobs, and ditto for minorities. Here we are, 200 years after the adoption of the Constitution, and the building of the building that’s going to honor the Constitution has the same problems that were enshrined in the Constitution.

Of course, Obama didn’t say anything about that but he probably didn’t know about it, because if you look at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Associated Press, which would be the only ones that would really cover that controversy, and that make it into the Lexis database, they never covered it. And not only did I look at it from Lexis-Nexis, I also went into the straight Daily News and Inquirer database, and it wasn’t there. They didn’t cover it.

So they’re not doing their jobs of informing the public about the real realities of race. Which takes us right back to the Kerner Report that was issued in February of 1968 that faulted the media for not doing its informative job and that having a very negative impact on the understanding of the American public about the real realities of race. So we want to say that things have improved, but in many substantive ways they haven’t.

I just read Stu Bykovsky’s column today in the Daily News and he was taking—perhaps the first black woman columnist that the Philadelphia Inquirer ever had, and that’s an outrage in and of itself, but she and a black female columnist for the Daily News, in their columns on Obama’s speech, framed racism as a contemporary problem, and Bykovsky’s take was, “Why are these people still dredging up the past when we live in a world where there’s an Oprah?”

Well, yes, there’s an Oprah and Bykovsky’s at least semi-accurate when he says that she’s the most powerful or most influential woman in America, but Oprah herself has talked about the indignities from racism that she has suffered herself. Now this is a woman who makes $100 million a year and she’s still getting discriminated against, what do you think about Jamila or Robin who live right around the corner from Temple University?

And again, historically in the context, I told you about those 73 people who signed that petition in 1799, they were all property owners, they all owned businesses. What’s different now is that there’s more of them. It’s not that there never was, but again our limited understanding of history—most people don’t know that there were free blacks before the Civil War!

KB: A friend of mine is working for the Obama campaign and she’s got some horror stories of racism in central Pennsylvania. I’m not from Pennsylvania, so I really didn’t have any idea about things like that.

LW: You know, Ed Rendell a few weeks ago created a little stir with his whole thing that Pennsylvania wasn’t ready to vote for a black or to a lesser degree, for a woman. He was really pilloried for that because of this whole I think pseudo-civility in terms of race. The reality is that outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania might as well be Mississippi or Alabama.

I travel around Pennsylvania a lot, and I get to places that most people in Pennsylvania don’t even know exist. Little mountain towns. I’ve got a buddy, one of my oldest friends in life, when I go up to visit him, we go hunting—well, I go on an armed hike, because I’m not shooting anything but I have a gun, but he’s a hunter.  And we’re in these little bars, these little backwoods places that you don’t even see on a map, and I can tell you that what your friend is seeing, it’s not unusual, it’s not isolated.

I mean, listen, me and this guy, his name is Arthur. For one period we went hunting every year for twelve straight years.  The twelfth year we got lost, dead flat lost. We’d walked over a three mile range, didn’t know where we were, it was getting cold, it was getting dark, and we were fearful that we had really messed up and we were going to end up getting hurt, or dead that night.

We’re sitting there on this little track, it’s not a road but it’s kind of like a road. And we’re like, damn, man, this is f****d up. We don’t have any more food, we don’t have any more water. Nothing else to drink, not even liquor—that was part of the problem of why we were lost in the first place.

And it came to an issue of what is going to be left in the forest because we don’t have enough energy to carry everything out. And the guns had to come out. We got down to saying all right, the ammunition that we’re carrying, we’re going to have to leave it, because we had these big deer rifles and this big heavy ammunition that goes with them. The bottom line is this, that for twelve years, both of us had been carrying 40 rounds of extra ammunition in case we ran into some racists out in the woods and had to get into a shootout.

We have been in the woods and we have had people walk past us and chamber their weapons as they walk past us. So what do we do, we slide the safeties off of our rifles and kind of get down behind rocks. It’s just crazy.

People who live in Philadelphia don’t have any sensibility of that because there are people in Philadelphia who are born, live and die in the community that they were born in. People from Germantown couldn’t tell you where Belle Vista is in South Philly, and people from downtown couldn’t tell you where Chestnut Hill is, much less get there.

When I came to Philly in 1970, when I started reporting–I spent 20-something years as a street reporter in Philadelphia–I was amazed at the insularity of the city. People don’t move around. But then, too, having the good fortune of getting on the other side of City Line Avenue and having grown up in Pittsburgh and having traveled back and forth across the place, having been to places like Forest County and Erie and down to Green County in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Honesdale and Sullivan County.

I’m traveling with State Representative Dwight Evans, in the ‘80s he’s running for Lieutenant Governor, so my assignment was to follow him around eastern Pennsylvania, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, as he campaigned and do a story on it.

So we’re up in the Lehigh Gorge, ended up in this place outside of Honesdale, I think it was called Happy Hollow or something, a rest home. We go in and the old folks are sitting there, and one of the old people in the place was black. So Evans is going around shaking everybody’s hand, and one of them says, “You know, it’s incredible, I’ve never seen a real one in my life!”

Evans is black! So everyone kind of froze, so Evans just caught the ball and said, “Oh, you mean a real politician?” and the guy’s like “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant.”

Everyone knew what he meant, though. But that would be something you’d expect to hear in the Deep South, but it was right here in Pennsylvania, saying it with a straight face. And I can appreciate the guy, I’m sure he wasn’t out burning crosses or anything like that, it’s just the way people think. Amazing.

KB: In the South, though, they see black people. They have to deal with them. I suppose in places like that they really haven’t seen many.

LW: Or they have, but it’s just this mentality. Blacks and issues of race are perceived a certain way. There’s blacks all over the place, and now there’s Hispanics all over the place in Pennsylvania.

A couple of years ago, I had a student in my class and she did her final project on a mountain biking trip that she and her friends took at a state forest about 30 miles east of Penn State’s main campus. She said they were riding down in this place and they came upon this place called N**** Hollow Trail. And she said “Well, Professor Washington, it just scared me to death, I didn’t know what was going on.”

I said, “Hold on, what did it say?”

N**** Hollow Trail. And I said I’ve got to go see this. So who did I call but my best friend Arthur. I called him for two reasons. He had a four-wheel-drive truck, right, and I figured we’d have to drive deep into the forest, and he had a permit to carry a gun, because I figured we might have to do some gun business.

Because I thought, you know, it had something to do with the Klan, or lynchings, or some crazy stuff like that, and he’s an African-American studies professor so he thought it had something to do with the Underground Railroad. We were both wrong.

What happened was there was a black guy who lived on this mountain. And in the latter part of the nineteenth century, what was happening in Pennsylvania was that there was a lot of logging, and the logging industry was to get wood to shore up the coal mines, because coal was the big industry in Pennsylvania.

Many of the state forests we now have were privately owned places where they took all of the treets off the mountains and there was a serious erosion problem, so the state came in, purchased the land and started growing trees on it and made the state forests.

So this N*** Hollow Trail was named after a guy who lived on this mountain, and he owned mules, so when they cut the trees down, he and his mules were the only ones who could get the trees off the mountain. So he and his mules would drag them down to the train tracks, and the train would carry them off to the sawmill on the other side of the mountain.

And this guy was just called the N****. They didn’t know what his name was or anything.

So we go up there and I’m expecting to see Klan and Arthur’s expecting to see the Underground Railroad. As luck would have it, we ran into a park ranger who knew the whole story. He told us the whole background of it, he was an amateur historian and he told us where to find the foundation of the guy’s original house.

We hiked in there in the middle of the wintertime. We didn’t find the house because there was a lot of snow on the ground, but we did get down there and saw N**** Hollow Trail, of course we could only find it on the maps because the trail heads, there wasn’t one that said N***** Hollow Trail, but on the map it said N**** Hollow Trail.

I wrote a piece about it in the Philadelphia Weekly, and I ended the piece saying that I hope they don’t change the name of N***** Hollow Trail because that’s part of the history. Don’t turn it into something like African-American Memorial Forest Highway.

Arthur and I go back up about three years later, in springtime, because we really want to find the foundation of the house, we want to find out more information, really find out who this guy is, get a name for him.

We went back to the same park facility, the guy wasn’t there, he’s retired, and we’re talking to this lady.  Arthur says “We’re trying to find,” and we don’t want to say n***** because we’re the only two n*****s around, but he says, “We’re trying to find N***** Hollow Trail.”

And she’s like, “Oh, we don’t use that kind of language here!”

And I say, “Well, yes you do, here it is on the map.”

She says “Oh, that’s not what is on our map!”

And the state had changed the map, and the new name is Negro Hollow Trail.

So I said, “No, here’s the map,” and she said, “No, we changed it two or three years ago.”

So I get the new map, still kept the old map, and we get to talking to this woman. And here I get into this whole long story just to tell you about the attitudes of people. This woman said, “You know, my husband’s relatives, they’re from Florida and they just came here and stayed with us, and I really didn’t like them because they kept using that word. N-word this and N-word that. And it just really made me feel bad.”

And we’re like, ”Yeah, I can understand that,” letting her talk.

And she says, “You know, I just couldn’t understand why they were just using that word when the people they were talking about didn’t really do anything to them. Now if they had done something to them, then I could understand them using that word.”

Now wait a minute, if the word is wrong to use, then whether someone does something to you or not, it’s wrong to use. But in her mind if these N’s had done something other than just being N’s, then it would be alright to call them N’s. 

But that kind of psychological schizophrenia, it exists. And people who would do those sorts of things, some of them are clearly doing it for a malicious reason, but other people who see it and say nothing, it’s easy in their mind to see it and say, “Hey, it’s not me, I don’t have any responsibility for turning this stuff around, although I kind of sympathize with what the people are saying.”

I understand what’s happening. I’m not saying it’s right—heck no I’m not saying it’s right—but it doesn’t surprise me. And particularly in Scranton.

There’s a prison in between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre called Dallas. Dallas state prison.  And this place is so far out there, it might as well be out of a sci-fi movie, where people go to those frozen planets and they’re walking through the snow and then all of a sudden a door opens up and you go underground and you’re in this prison.

This prison is famous because there’re few escapes from this prison because any black person in that area, the likelihood is that they’re an escapee from that prison because there’s no blacks in like a 25-mile radius from that prison. So if someone runs away–unless they have a car and can get out of there quick–they’re running around the countryside, they know where they came from!

Every time I’d have to go up there and visit prisoners or something for stories I was doing, I’m like, “Please, car, don’t break down.”

Then about less than 20 miles from the prison is one of my favorite places in Pennsylvania, it’s called Ricketts Glen State Park. Down in Ricketts Glen there are 15 waterfalls on this creek, and they go from like 5 feet high to 95 feet high. It’s an incredible place. So I go up there, I haven’t been there in years but I would go, take my kids, and again when I’m going up there it’s like “Please, car, don’t break down because we will not get any help around here.”

PA is a very interesting place, starting from Old City all the way west and north.

KB: My experience in Pennsylvania was limited to Philly, and I’ve heard people say this stuff before. I grew up in Massachusetts, so I always pictured Pennsylvania as part of the north.

LW: It has that image, as being a part of the North, as not being tainted by the South, as having that Quaker tradition, being very genteel, as being founded by William Penn who left England for religious tolerance, and that’s all true but at the same time there’s this other element, this backstory, this parallel story that no one wants to talk about.

That business down there with George Washington keeping slaves, the National Park Service knew about that since the mid-70s and they tried to keep it buried.

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