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  • January 2009
    M T W T F S S

Was Joseph Lowery’s Benediction at Barack Obama’s Inauguration Racist?

Rev. Lowery to the left of MLK in Ithaca, NY during the civil rights era (cornell photo)

Rev. Lowery to the left of MLK in Ithaca, NY during the civil rights era (cornell photo)

A long time civil rights leader and companion of Martin Luther King, Jr.,   Reverend Joseph Lowery, stirred up a little controversy in some circles due to the benediction he gave at President Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday.  The benediction which lasted a little over 5 minutes asked for God’s guidance and forgiveness, expressed thanks for our 44th president and ended on what some are calling a racist note.  What?!  Rev. Joseph Lowery racist?    Here’s an excerpt:

Rev. Joseph Lowery

Rev. Joseph Lowery

God of our weary years, god of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our god, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee . . . .We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other . . . .Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

(Full transcript of Lowery’s Benediction here)

Or if you prefer to watch/listen to it again:

The closing words of the prayer have gotten a few people’s dander up.  What do you think?   Was the reference to black, brown, yellow, red, and white going too far?  “Red man” certainly seems to be a pejorative these days.  Is asking for the day “white will embrace what is right” a racist comment?  Some have also pointed out that the phrases were reflective of common thinking in the civil rights era and that he was giving a nod to that time.  The phrasing about black brown and white might have been inspired  by his blues song back in the late 1950s (not sure where the yellow and red references come from):

What do you think?  Was the benediction racist or offensive to you personally?  If so, please tell us why.  If not, tell us why you think it was ok.

8 Responses

  1. No, it wasn’t racist, it was just an ironic invocation of old Civil Rights-era rhetoric. One of the worst parts of our society nowadays is white people going around trying to act like they are the major victims or recipients of racism.

  2. I agree with Ray’s assessment. I’m curious to hear any sound rebuttal to the points he made above. They seem irrefutable.

    As far as that quote from the princeton prof-
    I find its justification wanting. Humor is great, but someone who can only use humor to reveal the errors of other groups is guilty of discrimination. Rush and Maher do this all the time, and most are honest enough to call them on it. If people want to use biased humor, they have the right to do so, but I find it incredibly disingenuous for those not offended by Lowery’s words to try weasel their way out of designating them racist.

    Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino may have been racist in his profusion of ethnic slurs, but at least he wasn’t biased, because he denigrated virtually every race including members of his own.

    Lowery was not only racist in reducing enthicities to one color and one characterisitic, but also biased because not only did he point out a real flaw in one race using humor (whites), but contrived one in another (yellow -just to make it rhyme) and refused to point out any negatives in the other races, as if they are completely free from blemish.

    Would people have laughed if Warren ended his prayer with “may black stop killing black?” I hope not, but would that statement have been any less a generalization than Lowery’s?

    Please notice what I am saying-the hypothetical phrase above is definitely racist, and it is definitely biased. First, it is racist because it takes a concept that is true of a some portion of black society and blames the whole race. It is also biased because it does not acknowledge that whites, yellows, reds and browns are guilty of killing one another and the members of their own race. So, my question: what makes Lowery’s statements any less racist?

    I believe Lowery’s comments were racist and discriminatory. Were my feelings hurt? No, but I fear for our country’s ability to think critically when a person’s racism is not recognized just because people sympathize with him.

  3. ‘Black’ and ‘White’ (and for some, brown, but less so)are the self designations of those ethnicities. ‘Red’ and ‘yellow’ are pejoratives. I respect his right as part of one of the greatest movements our country has witnessed to enjoy a day he fought for when he called white to do what was right and draw on the lingo…but if I was asian or native american, I think i’d be pissed. So i was a little pissed on their behalf.

    I can’t imagine my black pastor (who was very funny) saying anything like this…but that’s anacdotal.

  4. Rebecca and Ray – thanks for your honest feedback. I also wondered if the choice of this as an ending was somewhat misguided – did the first black president really need something said at his inauguration that could be easily be misconstrued by white folks?

    We definitely live in a day where, at least in the public arena, we tend to play down race/color differences. When things start getting named it makes us uncomfortable. (well, not positive things, I suppose. Consider the perennial children’s classic – “Jesus Loves the Little Children” I guess it’s saying all the races “Red, and Yellow, Black, and White” are precious to God – but what about the Browns? And the Bronze – are tanners precious to God?) But the public naming of negative categorizations according to Race/Color definitely pushes us past our tolerance for acceptability – in public.

    I think most of us have been in private situations where this has not been the case. We may have even participated in private/semi-private thoughts, discussions, or jokes at the expense of another racial group. We may or may not have felt guilty about those things. I think most of us know when those things go over the line. But what about in the public arena? How can we make a good decision about whether Rev. Lowery’s choice of prayer ending was over the line? Does it really matter much?

    BTW, thanks for the link David – I do think hearing Black/Brown/African American voices directly on this is important as to me it seemed that cultural elements that I did not understand were in play. A lot of times in my new home away from home I hear things that don’t make sense to me – things that sound outright wrong, but I know it’s usually a redflag that I need to find a cultural insider.

    Keep the comments coming folks. A lot of people are reading, but only a few comments. What are you thinking? I wish I new if I had any Native American readers, as I would like to hear their take. Asians too.

  5. This may shed some light on the portion of the prayer in question:

    And perhaps what has been controversial in some media outlets, is the final section or Rev. Lowery’s prayer, when he said: “We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

    Melissa, I was literally laughing so hard when I heard this, that I almost fell out of my seat. First, Rev. Lowery pulled out his metaphorical “jive dictionary” from the 1960’s, using expressions that were popular “back in the day.” But the moment was a significant one for two reasons: humor has always been an element of the black church tradition. We laugh to keep from crying; we take joy in a life and conditions that would have been completely unbearable for others. So knowing the black church as I do, I know that his humor was intentional, but it was not irreverent. It speaks to the joy and the jive that has helped to bring us through some weary years.

    And finally, this last little bit of humor pays tribute to the urban and rural blues/folk traditions that have helped to shape the black church, most especially the music, sermons, and worship style of the black church. As a syncretic faith, pulling from African and Western influences, the black church is also a “patchwork” faith that has been influenced by, and has also greatly influenced, many secular forms of art, music, dance, and culture. So Rev. Lowery’s benediction highlighted the black church tradition at its best; a tradition of African descent, but American born and made.

    source: http://princetonprofs.blogspot.com/2009/01/black-church-inauguration.html

  6. This is from Wikipedia: “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, racism is a belief or ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group or racial groups.” By this definition, his comments were racist. He made general statements about people’s characteristics specific to their race (or skin color). I haven’t fussed about this to anyone — though it caught my ear as well. A couple things that I noted … the Red was the only one that he used “man” with … a clearly politically incorrect thing to do in this day and age. If he was simply using the predominant terms that were used in the day that they were acceptable, he also would have used something akin to “boy” for the black or brown. I also found it interesting (disappointedly) that he identifies yellow & white as needing positive changes … intimating that they are the only ones needing fixing. Asians (I assume that is who he was referring to as yellow) need to calm down? Is that a reference to the driven academic & professional nature of the Asian culture? Maybe … but that should have been contrasted to the urbanized, social service dependent culture that the US has created and caused to thrive — maybe he doesn’t do that because that can’t be summed up with skin color (since that culture isn’t bound by ethnicity). Whites embracing what is right … I’m sorry, as a follower of Christ, that is what we all need to do … it’s not simply those who are white.

    Was I offended? … not really. Was it racist? … by Oxford’s definition, I would say so. Either way (however you define racism) … it was foolish … a prayer is supposed to be communicating with God, not a civil rights statement … Rev. Lowery made a bad decision to draw attention to himself and his views, rather than direct our attention to God and close out a celebration for our nation.

  7. No. It wasn’t racist.
    Stop nit picking!!!

  8. I have to admit, I was the teeniest-tiniest bit offended by the “white embrace what’s right” comment. It seemed like a very different charge than “being mellow” for example. And yet, I can only imagine what horrors this man has seen done by whites in the past, so I didn’t feel the need to be personally offended, if that makes any sense.

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