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Offensive foot in pastor's mouth

The Baltimore Sun

It took a while for the Order Sons of Italy in America to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wrong - er, uh, excuse me, I mean Jeremiah Wright - but I figured we'd be hearing from them.

Wright is the "spiritual adviser" to presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Wright, before he retired, was also the pastor of the Chicago church Obama has attended for 20 years. The clergyman emeritus is not exactly the bashful type. Excerpts from some of Wright's more - well, how should I put this? - fiery sermons were recently revealed, and it was Obama who took the heat.

Those excerpts first came to light several weeks ago, and this story seems to have better legs than a world-class marathon runner. There have been 226 newspaper or magazine stories about Obama and Wright this week alone, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States were a case of "chickens coming home to roost," according to one Wright tidbit. After all, he railed, didn't we nuke the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II? In other sermons, Wright accused the U.S. government of spreading HIV and drugs in America's black communities.

Before I go any further, perhaps I should let my opinion about Wright be clear: He's a damned fool, one who should be grateful he lives in a country that doesn't ban damned fools from ascending to the pulpit and speaking their minds without fear of reprisal from their government. I can forgive Wright for not realizing that the Japanese government could have surrendered long before Aug. 6, 1945 - the day an atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima - and avoided that holocaust.

And considering how black folks feel about that syphilis "experiment" the U.S. government conducted in Tuskegee on black sharecroppers, I'm even willing to give him a pass on that HIV and drug thing, even if he didn't offer any proof.

But Wright's most offensive comments are the ones he wrote about Italian-Americans in the December 2007 edition of Trumpet magazine, where one of his daughters works as a publisher and another as an editor. The OSIA sent out a press release that focused on what the organization's members feel about Wright saying that "the Italians for the most part looked down their garlic noses at the Galileans."

Oh, there was more.

Wright accused an "apartheid Rome" of crucifying Jesus, and then called the execution "a public lynching, Italian style."

It was the use of the word lynching that especially rankles John DiBattista, who serves on the Maryland chapter of the Commission for Justice, the OSIA's anti-defamation arm.

"We were on the receiving end of that throughout American history," DiBattista said. The "we" he referred to are Italian-Americans. The "that" is, yes, lynching. There were Italian-Americans who were lynched. In fact, the victims of what's been called America's greatest mass lynching weren't black.

They were Italian-Americans.

It happened in New Orleans in 1891, According to Edward W. Knappman's Great American Trials, a lynch mob stormed a jail in the Big Easy and murdered 11 Italian-Americans who were accused of killing police Superintendent David Hennessy a year earlier. At least one of the defendants, according to the book, might have been innocent.

"Most of the accused were poor men whose arrests were based on circumstantial evidence or outright hysteria," Knappman writes. One of those "poor men" was a shoemaker named Pietro Monasterio. He lived in a shack near the spot from which Hennessy's killers fired their guns. That was enough to get him arrested - and lynched.

Perhaps Wright can be forgiven for not knowing that history. He lives in a country that doesn't just ignore anti-Italian bigotry. Hell, we embrace it. We celebrate it. Hollywood honchos have made a ton of money off ruthlessly stereotyping Italian-Americans as gangsters and mafiosos.

When Bernard McGuirk, the former producer of the Don Imus Show, called Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito a "meatball-sucking wop" during a satirical skit - he didn't get fired from the show.

But when McGuirk and Imus called members of Rutgers University women's basketball team "hos," they both got canned.

"It's been hard to communicate that [anti-Italian bigotry] to the media," DiBattista said. "We've had letters to the editors in different markets, and it's been hard to get that printed. Maybe it's because we're not an anointed minority."

But bigotry is bigotry, whether the target is an "anointed minority" or not. And bigotry is still bigotry when it comes from a man in the pulpit. With men of the cloth like Wright around, one thing is certain.

Expect God to make an official statement endorsing atheism any day now.

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