Views » August 14, 2008
Getting Messy With Jesse Helps Obama
Jackson understands his perverse value in this nation's political calculus: what displeases him pleases much of white America.
I find it hard to believe that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was unaware the Fox News mic was hot on July 6 when he broadcast his figurative castration of Sen. Barack Obama for “talking down to black people … telling niggers how to behave.” That particular critique of the Obama campaign had been echoing throughout much of the black community, particularly from activists.
Jackson’s public support for Obama’s presidential bid precluded him from openly expressing this critique, however, so he seemingly “leaked” it through a Fox microphone. The savvy Jackson, one of America’s most politically astute men, also understands his perverse value in this nation’s political calculus: what displeases him pleases much of white America.
For Jackson, it was a win-win: It solidified his activist credentials and aided the Obama campaign.
Avid Obama supporters are furious. And the corporate media are amplifying this tension to reinforce their notion that we are in the midst of a major shift in black America. Many media pundits claim we have arrived at a post-civil rights era embodied by Obama and bitterly resisted by the race-baiting Jackson. But they have it wrong.
The chagrin that many of Obama’s black supporters feel toward Jackson is not necessarily a rejection of the civil rights movement. Many African Americans are committed to the Obama campaign because of its historical significance. For them, the effort to elect a black president trumps all else. They contend that black Obama critics are raising issues that threaten to ruin this rare historical moment.
On the flip side, Obama’s black critics argue that such celebratory sentiments ignore the real costs of failing to demand accountability on issues of importance to African Americans. They see that failure in the way Obama panders to other constituencies but then patronizes the black base.
He told the NAACP, for example, “It doesn’t matter how much money we invest in our communities … or how many government programs we launch – none of it will make any difference if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.” Obama won much media praise for the hard-hitting “truths” of his message.
But Maulana Karenga – a Cal State-Long Beach professor, black nationalist theorist and creator of Kwanzaa – wrote in a July 17 column in the Los Angeles Sentinel that there was nothing “new, startling or worthy of refutation” in Obama’s moral message to the black community.
Moreover, Karenga asked, “If we are going to praise white Americans for their strengths, why come to black people preaching and prattling about weaknesses and offering a litany for lost souls?”
In his appearances before predominately black audiences, Obama laces his speeches with condescending language about the need for more individual responsibility. He omits this focus on collective behavior when he appears before other groups, and this inconsistency reinforces the conventional wisdom (that behavioral deficits are the barriers to racial equity) about the black poor.
In a recent essay in BlackAgendaReport.com, Adolph Reed Jr., a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and political commentator, argues, “Public sacrifice of black poor people has been pro forma Democratic presidential strategy since Clinton ran on the pledge to ‘end welfare as we know it’. “
Reed argues that for many liberals, a vote for Obama offers an effortless way to demonstrate anti-racist sentiments, relieving them of any other responsibility to work for the post-racial society the candidate supposedly embodies.
Conservatives already are composing eulogies for affirmative action.
Ward Connerly, the black, anti-affirmative action crusader, is overflowing with a sense of vindication. “The primary rationale for affirmative action is that America is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist,” Connerly told the Associated Press at the conclusion of the hotly contested primary campaign. “That rationale is undercut in a major way when you look at the success of Sen. (Hillary) Clinton and Sen. Obama.”
The opinions of politicians along the political spectrum and many media pundits seemingly converge on the consensus that the civil rights model is passé and Obama’s prominence is proof. But there is confusion about this issue, even among Obama’s critics.
The motive of the civil rights movement that Jackson exemplifies is to promote racial justice and equity – still distant goals. Obama’s motive, by contrast, is to win the presidential election.
Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductible donation to fund this reporting.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.