Forget hope and change; victimization is in. Dropped by the president and dismissed as a racist by many Americans, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright still draws crowds with his sometimes crotch-grabbing, always riveting soliloquies about black oppression.
The former pastor of Barack Obama drew thousands last week to the 8,000-member Empowerment Temple in Baltimore City. Overflow lots at the church were filled, and five blocks on either side of the massive stadium-like stucco building in Park Heights — a part of town where Orthodox Jews mix sometimes uneasily with blacks — were wall to wall with cars.
In this city where nearly 80,000 people left (along with 53,000 jobs) in the last decade, it's easy to understand why his message resonates.
For Mr. Wright, however, subjugation is a universal truth. Even the president, in Mr. Wright's mind, is not in control of his own destiny.
"Barack Obama was selected before he was elected," said Mr. Wright, dressed in black pants and a short-sleeved, African-style printed tunic. "Wall Street selected him. GM, Ford and Chrysler selected him. When you are selected by them, you are beholden to them."
Referencing the Book of Exodus, he warned churchgoers to "Please remember that Pharaoh was black, so not all of your oppressors are white." A chorus of "amen" and a phalanx of arms rose simultaneously into the air in agreement with Mr. Wright.
And he said faith was not a path to riches, repeatedly poking the expensively dressed Empowerment Temple Pastor Jamal Bryant for driving a Range Rover. "Every word that is in the Bible was written under six different types of [government] oppression," he said.
Mr. Bryant spent much of the hour-and-a-half interview with Mr. Wright with his immaculately manicured right hand on his head, slouched deep in his seat.
Mr. Wright spread the blame for black persecution around on lots of people and epochs. He hates Roman emperors for renaming months after themselves and upsetting their proper numerical order; Michelangelo for painting Jesus as white; U.S. public schools for teaching the American Revolution instead of African history. In particular, he hates the term "Middle East," as it implies Europe as the center of the world.
And he hates Israel. "The state of Israel is an illegal, genocidal … place," he said. "To equate Judaism with the state of Israel is to equate Christianity with [rapper] Flavor Flav." Laughter erupted from the mostly female audience on that remark.
His solution: "We need to help African-Americans see they are just Africans born in another country."
This could be achieved in part by requiring African-American students to study African history after school each day, just like Jewish children who receive a separate Hebrew education, he said. (Never mind that all of that education has not prevented cross-faith marriages and a weakening of the ties of successive generations to Judaism.)
And never mind that students today suffer not from an identity crisis but a lack of basic skills. Studies show student self-esteem at an all-time high. But at Baltimore City Community College, 80 percent of incoming students need remedial education. Statewide, public two- and four-year institutions report 56 percent of students going directly from high school to college need some form of remedial education in a state honored three years in a row as having the top public education system by Education Week.
Empowering the children of the Empowerment Temple to rise above their circumstances would mean fewer converts down the road, however. And it would shatter the myth of a black liberation theology that needs Baltimore and Detroit and other crumbling cities to exist in order to be relevant.
Mr. Wright's fiery rhetoric likely won't prompt any defections from the Barack Obama camp, either. As Daily Show "Senior Black Correspondent" Larry Wilmore recently said, "He [Obama] could lose the black vote. … If he can't get a hold of this economy, then goodbye 96 percent, hello 94."
But believing in an America that will never change is a lot easier than remaking it into one in which he would like to live. Mr. Wright said, "When you say yes to politics, you say yes to compromise." What's worse is telling struggling single mothers with boyfriends, husbands and sons in prison and homes in foreclosure that the only way out is to disavow America for an African dream that has never existed and never will.
Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.