Jackson and Obama: Political Blackness Redefined

By Tammy Johnson Jan 11, 2008

This week Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now broadcast featured a discussion with Reverend Jesse Jackson that focused on race and the primary elections. Much of the conversation centered on the Reverend’s support of Barack Obama, and the perceived split of support among Black leaders and celebrities for various candidates. But what was really intriguing was Jackson’s take on Obama’s political handling of racial issues and his relation to the civil rights legacy which paved the way for his historical bid for the Presidency. Death to the scary Black man Goodman kicked off the sequence with a clip of William Bennett trumpeting the rise of the new Black man via Obama’s Iowa victory.

“97% in fact, Iowa, rural white, farming state. Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, wins this for the Democrats. I have been watching him. I watched him on Meet the Press. I watched him on your show, watched him on all the CNN shows. He never brings race into it. He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community, he has taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson, you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton.”

If you have been around racial politics long enough, you recognize the subtext of this argument. Obama’s not a scary black man. He won’t make white people confront racial inequities, deal with issues of privilege or the structural racism that undergirds this country. You get your chocolate without the calories and perhaps, without the nutrients as well. Reverend Jackson attributes the Iowa victory to the “maturing of America.” I can buy into that thinking up to a point. After all, when white Iowans went into those voting booths they did punch the card for a brother. But was that a calculation that he was a safe bet? It takes me back to that scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where the Italian, Pino, says of Black celebrities that he really likes, “They’re not really Black.” In the minds of white voters, is Obama really Black? The Establishment Goes Black? Reverend Jackson puts Obama’s victory into a larger context of political and social struggle. He rightly runs down the battles that were fought in the streets, the courts, the White House, the jailhouse, the conventions and back rooms for at least four decades prior to the Obama run. What’s noteworthy is that in every battle Jackson describes the push and pull that Blacks had to engage with the establishment (read Democratic Party and it’s leadership) as opposed to the blatantly racist Jim Crow crowd; from MLK’s forcing Johnson’s hand on the Civil Rights Act, to challenging the party’s values when it refused to demand the release of Mandela in apartheid South Africa. It begs the question: Will Obama, the beneficiary of the struggle, push the party on key issues of race? Will he do what Shirley Chisholm was unable to do, and force the party’s platform to reflect the needs of all the people? Will he speak up against three-strikes laws, push for the repeal of welfare reform or stop the unfair the deportation of Haitian immigrants? Or will he play it safe and talk about racial unity with great eloquence, but very little substance? Jackson didn’t go there in his public speculation, but somebody should. Struggle Continues Some would say that it’s good that Obama doesn’t address race directly. Here again, Jackson diplomatically puts such thinking into the uniquely American context.

“Well, there’s a sense in which many Americans want to focus on racial reconciliation, and they ignore racial justice and racial equality. And you cannot ultimately get past those concerns…But Barack does not remind America of the unfinished business very much of racial justice, racial equality, but he need not. It’s self-evident that that needs to happen.”

If it is so self-evident, why does the good Reverend then go into detail about what he called “the state of emergency in Black America?” The list of racial wrongs was daunting: Increased incarceration rates, voting rights violations, mortgage foreclosure crisis and the general abandonment of civil rights for Blacks and Latinos. Jackson is right when he says that you can’t take a pass on people’s mental and emotional blocks on race. You have to confront it. Isn’t that exactly what he is doing with his January 22 march on HUD and the housing crisis? Isn’t that what he and countless numbers of civil rights and racial justice leaders have done for decades? Why lower the bar now? Obama may be successful in moving ahead politically by creating an image of being civil-rights-lite, but will communities of color reap the benefits as well? That’s yet to be seen. Meanwhile, I’m off to the next coalition meeting.