Rainbow Redux

Professor Dorian Warren goes searching for the truth about Barack Obama.

By Dorian Warren Mar 01, 2007

 I never thought I’d think or say this: I miss Jesse. With all the distracting hubbub about Barack Obama’s blackness, I’ve been missing the Reverend’s voice. Where is Jesse Jackson and why is he M.I.A.?

It’s hard for me to think about Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for presidency without immediately contrasting it with Rev. Jackson’s two runs for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988. We’ve gone from “Keep Hope Alive” to “the Audacity of Hope”, from the “Rainbow Coalition” to “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

This important shift in political vision seems much more salient than the superficial and idiotic discourse around Obama’s “blackness”. But the media has paid more attention to whether the “one-drop rule” applies to Obama’s racial identity than where he stands on political issues.

It wouldn’t take much work for any journalist worth her salt to do a little research into Obama’s voting record in the Illinois State Senate, or, (gasp!) to ask and report on questions about where Obama stands on the important issues of our time. I’m with New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman: “Enough already. Let’s make this election about the issues. Let’s demand that presidential candidates explain what they propose doing about the real problems facing the nation, and judge them by how they respond.”

Insofar as he explicitly self-identifies with African Americans and the black freedom struggle (which is fine with me—we need as many as we can get!), I’d like to know where exactly Obama stands on the most important issues facing the racial justice movement, in addition to the problems facing the nation as a whole: incarceration & criminal justice; civil rights and civil liberties; New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; HIV/AIDS and reproductive health; globalization and economic inequality; immigration reform; and housing; to name just a few of many.

If you go to Obama’s presidential website, you’d be hard-pressed to find any explicit reference to racial inequality or racial justice, especially under his key issues. (In fairness, he does include “protecting the right to vote” as one of his major issues.)

What you do find is the junior Senator from Illinois describing how he has developed “innovative approaches to challenge the status quo and get results” by being bipartisan, and how this reflects the fact that “Americans are tired of divisive ideological politics”.

Let’s be clear: polarized and divisive politics is not the cause of our most significant problems. They are often symptoms of deeper issues and sometimes reflect irreconcilable interests and conflicts.

Americans are, and have always been, divided by ideology. It took a civil war to settle the issue of slavery (it sure through bipartisanship). Dismantling Jim Crow racial apartheid also was divisive and ideological, so much so that white Southerners fled the Democratic Party in protest of the unraveling of the prevailing racial order.

I could not care less about the personality contest between Hillary and Barack, or the superficial and facile discussions of how authentically Black Obama is or is not.

Sen. Obama and any of the presidential candidates will have to work to earn my vote by providing a compelling moral vision for justice and equality, along with their policy platforms. They must show the audacity of courage — The courage to challenge the American public, not simply to stick a wet finger in the air to deliver the latest platitude (you know the old quip, “it doesn’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing”).

Rev. Jackson said it best in discussing his losing bid for the nomination in his 1984 address to the Democratic National Convention: “…issues are non-negotiable. We could not afford to avoid raising the right questions. Our self-respect and moral integrity were at stake. Our heads are perhaps bloody, but not bowed. Our back is straight. We can go home and face our people. Our vision is clear”.

And that’s why I miss Jesse. Whether you agree with the content or not, Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” was, and still is, a clear, compelling and powerful vision for racial and social justice. Indeed, drawing from this vision, Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher, Jr. have advanced a “neo-rainbow” political strategy for our current political moment that deserves much more attention.

 “Hands that once picked cotton, now pick presidents”.

“We must judge a tree not by the bark it wears, but by the fruit it bears”.

We could sure use one of the Reverend’s rhymes right now. 

Dorian T. Warren is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International & Public Affairs at Columbia University.