Here’s what we learned from the recent controversy regarding Barack Obama’s minister: too few white Americans have close black friends.

Otherwise, they would have heard it all before. And more.

Even if they don’t rachet up to the level of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric, it’s always clear that there is an emotional platform that every African-American shares. It gives birth to a range of feelings from a persistent sense of uneasiness to a palpable sense of pain.

Preaching The Gospel

If too few white Americans have interracial friendships, it’s obvious from the recent debate about Rev. Wright’s comments that even fewer whites have ever attended an African-American church. It’s impossible to claim an understanding of the black experience in the U.S. without doing this.

Frankly, in the context of this experience, it’s hard for us to argue that the sometimes incendiary, frequently angry and always therapeutic rhetoric of the African-American church isn’t justified. In a world where many African-Americans feel powerless to control their own lives, their ministers give voice to their frustrations and worries as well as give them the hope to deal with the hopelessness and despair that are frequently persistent their neighborhoods.

More often than not, the black church is home to a social gospel that calls on its members to serve others, to fight for their neighborhoods, to inspire youths with dreams for the future and to offer explanations that give an understanding of the realities faced by them. The ministers give meaning, they give hope and they are often the tenuous link between surviving and living.

No Mind Meld

It’s in this context that Sen. Obama’s membership in a United Church of Christ that has Rev. Wright in the pulpit makes perfect sense. It’s not just about scriptural interpretation or religious doctrine. Actually, it’s much more about social outreach, servant ministry and personal relationships.

With Sen. Obama’s background as a community organizer, it seems only natural that he was drawn to a minister and a church with a tradition of community outreach and neighborhood activism. Some of us here have done the same thing, joining a church for its social activism rather than a word-for-word agreement with the minister.

We think back to the days when United Methodist minister, Frank McRae, was well-known and outspoken in his liberal beliefs and grassroots programs at St. John’s United Methodist Church. In 1968, he was active in the movement of ministers who called for respect and dignity for city sanitation workers when they went out on strike.

Broadened Experiences

Sitting in a pew in his church Sunday after Sunday was Bob James, the right-wing former City Council member who believed the strike was part of a worldwide Communist conspiracy and was the only Council member to vote against a memorandum of understanding with the workers. To him, his church membership wasn’t about any disagreements with Rev. McRae. It was all about the personal relationship with his minister that reassured and strengthened him.

Only in the rarified world of political commentators are ministers and every member of their congregations supposed to walk in lock step through perhaps the world’s most varied religion, Christianity. This diversity is also a fact of life of the black church, and the recent attempt by the national media to understand it through the lens of politics is misguided and results in the distortion and simplistic conclusions that are so rampant in media commentary these days.

Here’s what to do if you really want a better understanding of the African-American church – attend one. You’ll understand how the church is equal parts sanctification and explanation. It’s not just about salvation, but it’s also bringing coherence to a society seen largely as incoherent when it comes to them.

The Magic Moment

Meanwhile, at a personal level, here’s how you know if you as a Caucasian have an honest, serious friendship across the racial divide. You’ve experienced “the moment,” the time when the level of trust has reached the point when your African-American friend reveals his deepest feelings and a vastly different view of the same world in which you both live.

It’s at that moment that you come to grips with the fact that it’s impossible to intellectualize, to empathize or to abstract the black experience. It’s hard to appreciate the fact that African-Americans, who, despite all the trappings of upper middle class success, still have moments when they feel like strangers in a strange land, when they feel like they are walking on eggshells or when they feel that they are playing a role in their business lives. Most of all, they feel adept at walking the tightrope that stretches between the two cultures in which they exist.

Many live with something approaching survivor’s guilt. It’s impossible for them to understand how they escaped from the suffocating urban conditions that trapped thousands of others. It’s equally difficult to find opportunities to talk about the challenging conditions facing too many African-Americans without alienating business associates and without being labeled in some negative way.

Race To The Finish

We’ve wrestled with issues of race since the founding of our city. After all, African-Americans defined our culture, our cuisine, our traditions and our civic character. Coupled with the fact that almost one out of every two people in this metro area – something not found in any other city with more than one million people – are now African-American, there’s no argument that anything characterizes our community more than its constant attention to black-white relations.

Now, it’s the nation’s time. Rev. Wright’s shocking comments and Sen. Obama’s eloquent exploration of the role of race in the U.S. have been a wake-up call for a nation that, unlike Memphis, seems unused to a conversation about our most difficult subject.

The hardest thing to do is to listen – really listen. As we learned in the reaction to Rev. Wright’s comments, too many people rush to shout and condemn, shutting off the prospects for serious discussion. While we weren’t shocked that a black minister in American would channel his anger at the inequities and unfairness inherent in our society into comments that might seem outrageous, we were shocked that there was so little interest in trying to understand their cause.


It’s a reminder of how unwelcome genuine honesty is in the “gotcha” media environment that exists today. It’s also a reminder of how much courage the founders of the recently announced Common Ground project in Memphis will need to succeed in their ambitious goals. As they begin, one thing is obvious: without a total commitment to honesty, this new process is destined to fall short.

But, if it’s done right, it can be a model for the rest of the nation. It’s hard to think of an American region where that would be more appropriate, and in our mind, unlike most of the U.S., the blunt racial conversation that we have had here for years could actually end up being a strength rather than a weakness.

Of course, the challenge to Common Ground is to get beyond the usual suspects, because too often, the same few hundred people who gather regularly to talk about race. Most of all, it has to explain how racial understanding is in our enlightened self-interest.

Competitive Tolerance

Most of all, tolerance is a competitive advantage in a global economy. It’s been clearly shown that two-thirds of college-educated young professionals pick where they live before they pick where they work, and increasingly, they are looking for a place where they can live the life they want to live.

In other words, they are looking for a place where tolerance is essential to the city’s character – tolerance in race, gender and sexual orientation. Memphis has many serious challenges facing it if it is to succeed in an increasingly complex world economy, but no challenge may prove harder than transforming ourselves into a city known for being tolerant and open.

Hopefully, if we do it right, more of us will be able to listen and understand the reality of the black experience, even when it’s framed in the sometimes disturbing words of Rev. Wright.