The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s offhand insult of Barack Obama last week has exposed a heated debate over whether Obama’s groundbreaking presidential campaign—and his repeated challenge to the black community to straighten out its own affairs—is displacing and alienating some in Jackson’s generation of black leadership, which held the government accountable for the plight of African-Americans.
Though Jackson apologized profusely for the remark, he still faced intense criticism, not least a sharply worded rebuke from his namesake son, who is a congressman and an Obama campaign official. Some in the black community said the clash demonstrates the elder Jackson’s resentment at having to make way for a new generation of leaders like Obama, who believe that black America is not blameless for its chronic social problems.
[Derrell] Lipscomb [Pentagon City Mall shopper], 18, said Jackson is behind the times: “He doesn’t understand that racism really isn’t the main thing right now.”
Several prominent black political figures note that Jackson expressed aloud what some black voters had kept to themselves: a suspicion that Obama’s criticism of deadbeat dads and undisciplined households is a play for more-conservative white voters. That part of the debate, they say, has been largely kept quiet to avoid damaging Obama’s historic bid for the presidency.
Many believe a public discussion could undermine Obama’s support among African-Americans, a constituency he will need behind him at full strength to defeat Republican challenger John McCain. Though black voters turned out for Obama in record numbers during the marathon Democratic primaries, any erosion of that support could mean the difference in battleground states like Georgia and North Carolina.
Unlike Jackson, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, 46, and the younger Jackson represent “the new generation which is less confrontational, more willing to compromise [with whites] and play inside the game of politics,” Haynie said. They see themselves not as activists but as politicians who are elected to solve problems, even if it means adopting moderate or conservative positions.
William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy center, said some believe Obama’s criticism of the black community has spurred debate because “every time someone who is not a conservative talks about personal responsibility, he or she is accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It suggests in so many words that the people at issue are not pure victims.”
That’s a message liberals and some black people find disturbing, Galston said, because “it takes white America and privileged America off the hook.”
Yet most blacks would rather keep quiet about their discomfort with that message if it means helping elect the first African-American president.