Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jesse Jackson, Cutting Up Obama, and the Guilt ... Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Obama was an organizer with Project Vote. You can't be an organizer with ProjectVote and not have an understanding and belief in the reality of systemic racial/social injustice. Really, can you be an intelligent black man in this country and blind to injustice?

Let's face it, Obama wouldn't have been attracted to an organization like ProjectVote straight out of Harvard Law School if he didn't think America needed to work harder to accomplish "justice for all." It's hard to be a person of color in this nation and not know that African-Americans face additional challenges to success.

Through both formal education and personal experience and despite not being a descendant of slaves himself, Obama must know that slavery and other racist institutional policies still strain the fiber of the African-American psyche. This strain influences how black men handle family issues since there is a correlation between black father abandonment and messages internalized by black culture during slavery, through the Jim Crow period, and via imprudent welfare policies. However, Obama can't acknowledge this truth more than one speech a decade, maybe, without antagonizing certain white voters and being painted as not the people leader but "the black leader."

Even whites who openly acknowledge that racism is alive and take time to connect the dots from oppression to social regression are painted as rabid liberals who should not be taken seriously by "white" America.

Nevertheless, I don't think Jackson's snide remark about Obama "talking down to black people" is based on Jackson wanting Obama to blame white people. I don't think Jackson is an ignorant person who thinks that everything is white people's fault.

I think when Jackson speaks he speaks as a Civil Rights leader, and as I've said in other comments, it's a fact that black people in this country need their own Civil Rights leaders because our Civil Rights are frequently challenged. So, it's Jesse's duty as a Civil Rights leader to challenge civic institutions to do whatever it takes to make equality a reality. Consequently, he's not inclined to appear to let these institutions off the hook by making long speeches defining morals for black people (odd considering he's a minister but that's a different post).

Believe me, speeches that tell black people to take individual responsibility make some people who've benefited from social inequality think that social inequality is the result of individual laziness and to pretend the deck was never stacked in their favor. They are happy to think that the laws and socially-corrupt policies that benefited those with white skin no longer have an impact when in fact they do, even laws and policies long dead. It's as though they don't understand the difference between how the actions of the group in power impact the lives of the less powerful even on an individual level. Remember the fallout when Bill Cosby decided to lecture African-Americans about personal responsibility? People like Rush Limbaugh ate that up.

(I'm not saying that this is what the person who left the provocative comment is doing. I don't know anything about how she feels about America's responsibility vs. personal responsibility. I'm speaking of those who've benefited from racial injustice but who don't seem to grasps that others have been and are still harmed by this injustice.)

Jackson's Personal Culpability on the Absent Fathers Issue

Ironically, Jackson may have been motivated to say what he said about Obama because of his own personal responsibility issues. I said in my first post about this that Obama probably hit a nerve because Jackson has at least one child the public knows about born to a woman other than Jackson's wife. That child, therefore, is a child whose father is absent from the household. Jesse Jackson may be paying child support, but he's not really there with the child in the traditional family sense. So, any commentary that points the finger at absent fathers is pointing a finger at Jesse.

Jackson's personal life aside, this tendency of the media and some whites to assume that black people need one specific leader to tell them to take responsibility in their personal lives is one way that the majority population looks down on black people. I work with poor white women who also don't have fathers there helping to raise their children, but the public doesn't talk as often about fatherless white children as it does fatherless black children. You don't hear anyone saying to Pat Robertson or John McCain, "Why aren't you addressing white men who abandon their kids?" Like Jesse, Pat Robertson is a politically active minister who ran for the presidency once, and McCain, well, McCain is whatever he is.

It's good for a leader to speak of the need for all fathers to be responsible, but I doubt there's any black father who's absent from his children's lives who hasn't heard the message before. If he's missed that message, then he's been singing "lalala" with his fingers in his ears. Personal responsibility is not the sort of message that goes unsaid to people privately in our neighborhoods. It is, however, a message that white America likes hearing was said to black people.

It's my opinion that white people who want to feel comfortable about their racist thinking like to hear the personal responsibility message being delivered to people of color the same way an abusive former partner likes to hear from someone else that the partner he used to beat regularly is as stupid and incompetent as he told her she was. He likes any implication that he's off the hook for those beatings so he can tell himself that she deserved them all. People don't like feeling guilty.

On a lighter note, here's one of my favorite Stephen Colbert clips with Debra Dickerson on Obama's blackness. Colbert jokingly pegs Obama as "nouveau" black, and when people compare him to anyone like Jesse Jackson they speak of Jackson as doing things the old way. Is this how Obama's different?

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Unknown said...

I really have to comment on this - at the end of the day if Barack was an ordinary fella and walked up to Debra he would be a black guy. For her to say he is an African African American sounds ridiculous. If any one is African American he is - he has direct roots to the continent. Perhaps Black should be defined as mutt but then again Barack is that too. So, all of this conversation is simply fluff.

I am just glad that he is a man that can relate to all people and has had the opportunity to see life thru the lens of different cultures.

His experiences as a bi-racial, ex-pat, raised by his white relatives gives him a unique perspective that I think will be refreshing for our country.

Vérité Parlant said...

Thank you for giving your opinion on this. Of course Debra sounds ridiculous. I think Colbert's responses showed just how ridiculous what she says sounds, which is why it's one of my favorite clips. Obama looks "black" and so he's been treated that way. (And yes, he is African-American. No need for the extra "African" adjective.) He identifies with the struggles of many people and that's what makes him able to lead well. The last thing we need is more ways to divide ourselves.