Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, is angry at Obama and at those who cheered his speech. We (I not only cheered, I wept) are guilty of accepting a double standard because, says Jacoby, if our clergyman had said the hateful things that Wright did, we would not have sat quietly in our pews for twenty years. Yet, we are willing to give Obama a pass. Obama not only should have objected to Wright’s words all along the way, he should have left the church or worked to get Wright fired, just as Jacoby would have done if his rabbi had said equally awful things.
I know Jacoby’s synagogue. It’s in my neighborhood. I’ve been there. It’s lovely. Airy. Light. It’s in Brookline, a terrific part of greater Boston. Jacoby’s synagogue’s got comfortable seats, pretty ornamental touches, and a well-dressed, affluent, overwhelmingly white congregation.
The notion of a double standard assumes, in an odd way, a single standard. The criticism only makes sense within contexts uniform enough that our moral judgments should be the same. If I condemn a Democratic governor for paying for sex but excuse a Republican congressman for the same offense, then I’m guilty of applying a double standard.
But Jacoby apparently didn’t hear what Obama said in his fearless, epochal speech. Who is this “we” who applied a double standard? Our glorious union is nevertheless imperfect because it is riven by divisions deeper than we are comfortable acknowledging. The racial division is so deep that politicians never talk about it except in platitudes so empty that they function as lies. Now Obama has.
If we apply a single standard, we are denying the fact that synagogues in Brookline are very different from African-American churches in Illinois. We can, and should, express our strong disagreement with the particularities of Wright’s sermons, but if we stop there — and every political advisor in the land would have urged Obama exactly to stop right there — we will continue in our fantasy that there is a single culture, a single set of values, a single set of assumptions, a single view of history, a single vision of the future, a single set of constraints, a single set of opportunities for all in our imperfect union.
Obama is asking us to do what is perhaps hardest. What it takes adults to do. Obama’is speech asks us to embrace difference and simultaneously to transcend it. That’s why Obama presented contexts that not only helped us white Jews in Brookline understand why a Black pastor might say such things, but also acknowledged how African-Americans can seem to white folks who don’t see why they should be disadvantaged for crimes they did not commit.
Unless we accept double, triple, multiple standards, we are invisible to one another, and thus to ourselves. The thoughtless insistence on a single standard is unseemly and unhelpful, especially when it comes from those who live in privilege for whatever reason.
Jeff, you and I live in what is pretty much a white part of Boston. As far as I can tell, Brookline has made little progress in integrating itself in the twenty years I’ve lived there. We’re stalled. Stuck. Now, who did I hear talking about this just yesterday?
What a tragedy it would be to throw away the hope Sen. Obama presented us yesterday. It, at long last, gives us a way forward.
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