Jesse Jackson’s real problem with Barack Obama
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 07/17/2008
A plainly irritated Jesse Jackson obviously didn’t mean that he would cut Obama’s nuts off. The crude, salty street talk was simply an unguarded moment’s outburst from a frustrated Jackson regarding Obama’s recent political somersaults. Jackson, of course, took much deserved heat from his son Jesse Jr. and just about everyone else who has an opinion about him, his language and Obama.
But what is lost in the leap to beat up on Jackson is this: Is he right to be frustrated by Obama, and is there anything new about his frustration with him?
Jackson has always had a mix of puzzlement, wariness and frustration with and toward Obama from the moment he announced that he would run for the presidency. Jackson and the other old-guard civil rights leaders and old-line black Democrats didn’t know what to make of Obama.
Jackson took a long wait and see before endorsing him. And even then the endorsement was more of a kind of, sort of endorsement than a ringing declaration of Obama’s possible presidential assets.
The ubiquitous Jackson — that is, the Jackson who prided himself for two decades on being anywhere and everywhere there was a civil rights or political battle to be fought or commented on — was suddenly the missing Jackson whenever the subject was Obama and his much-touted historic breakthrough for African-Americans. There were brief Jackson sightings here and there, but always it was to take a veiled knock at Obama. Jackson rapped him for not speaking out on the Jena 6 racial case in Louisiana and coupled it with a public musing about whether he was black enough. The customary denials and apologies followed when Jackson took some flak for the knock.
But Jackson’s Obama problem is not solely the pique of an aging and increasingly bypassed civil rights icon who has had his day and is envious of Obama for stealing the media and limelight. The problem is the profound gap between Jackson and Obama over how civil rights and racial battles should be fought in America.
Obama doesn’t look, talk or act like a black leader or civil rights activist should look, talk and act. He does not march in the streets, picket or protest over racial wrongs and injustices. How could he? He wasn’t around in the 1960s when Jackson and company did all those things. He talks about political and racial moderation, conciliation, healing and harmony. But even more galling than the notion that he hasn’t paid his civil rights dues is that he also talks about being multiracial. This sent up the red flag that Obama’s adherence and allegiance to blackness is deeply suspect.
Jackson and the old guard civil rights leaders could never have hoped for anything like the rush by corporate donors to bankroll Obama’s campaign, the swooning embrace he got from Democratic Party regulars, the rapturous tout he got from blacks, and the starry-eyed celebrity adulation he got from whites and other non-blacks. So it was no surprise that Obama’s rap of black men and his cheering of Bush’s faith-based initiative was the last straw. It confirmed Jackson’s worst fear about Obama, and that is that he’s a deal-making Beltway Democrat who will say and do anything to get elected, even if that means tossing racial ideals as Jackson defines them under the bus.
The great irony in this is that Jackson for a brief time was looked up to with the same starry-eyed swoon by many blacks and whites; he was the unbridled darling of the media establishment and could command his fair share of dollars from corporations and wealthy philanthropists. There was even a time when the presidential cry “Run Jesse Run” bounced from the lips of thousands.
There was sheer delight when Jackson instantly heated up a crowd with a timely slogan, catchy rhyme or well-timed phrase, and he had the instant ear of presidents and heads of state.
Those days are long gone and Jesse is left with fast-fading memories, as well as the frustration of having to look with a jaundiced eye at a guy who’s doing what he once hoped to achieve, but doing it in a way that he never could or would.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House” (Middle Passage Press).