Last week, the nation observed what may go down in history as the ultimate Jesse Jackson backlash in response to the civil rights leader’s hot mic Obama commentary. Even more outrageous than the contempt that many commentators expressed with Reverend Jackson’s decades old leadership is the seeming lack of concern for a Black agenda by contrast.
This is not to say that Jackson didn’t have it coming. Black frustration with self-appointed leaders has been a hallmark of the fading civil right era. But that’s a distraction from the real issue: so much attention has been focused on condemning Jackson that Black voters missed a huge opportunity to force Senator Barack Obama’s hand at placing their core issues on his change agenda, something he’s pretty much avoided throughout the campaign.
For nearly a year those on the left have lamented team Obama’s unwillingness to make their issues paramount, something they feel they’ve earned given their early and continuing support. Some diehard Obama supporters have even come to accept it won’t happen. These are the passive aggressive voices you hear saying, “he’s got to reach broad appeal before he can address our issues.”
If George Bush had accepted that mantra, we would have avoided the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Katrina Hurricane disaster, and the bail out of mortgage banking industry, to name a few.
When it comes to major party presidential candidates’ willingness to address our issues, the Black community has been patient long enough. Black Americans currently suffer one of the most devastating job crises in our history. Economic development in Black communities beyond gentrification is nearly non-existent. The prison crisis, healthcare among poor Blacks and educational performance of too many Black youth is an international embarrassment.
Many Black Americans expect more from presumptive Democratic nominee than they have from centrist Democrats, rightly so. Not only is he Black—something that mainstream political pundits won’t let us forget—but given his community activist credentials the issues that top a Black political agenda aren’t foreign to him.
That being the case, Jackson’s critique of Obama was, in all honesty, a softball thrown to Black political interests. Instead of seizing the moment, Black public response seemed more of a mob mentality—Jesse Jackson Jr. included—responding primarily to the wrongs many feel we’ve suffered for decades at the hands of a self-appointed Black leader.
Meanwhile, at this crucial hour in Black political history, on a scale of one to ten, the issues raised by Jackson’s critics—whether or not Jackson is jealous of Obama, that there is no sole Black leader, that Jackson’s lynching reference points to a double standard—don’t lead anyone’s list of top Black political concerns.
By contrast the substance of Jackson’s comments, crudeness aside— that Obama is talking down to Black people—points us to the right direction: the personal responsibility of Black fathers alone isn’t going to rectify inequalities born from centuries of structural racism.
And even if it would, we don’t see Obama preaching to other communities about the same. Rather, his message to Cuban exiles, Jewish Americans and others interest groups who command substance in exchange for their vote is centered on how public policy backed by an Obama presidency will align with their issues.
Black Americans deserve the same.
The Jeremiah Wright controversy, as difficult as it was for many Obama supporters to swallow, did push Obama to talk in no uncertain terms about race. Jackson’s comments should similarly advance a national discussion around a Black political agenda.
If this election will render the dramatic policy shifts that Black Americans and the country so desperately need, it will require more from the Black community than watching the Obama train leave the station with us on the sidelines.
Black voters shouldn’t be shy about using political moments like these to advance our collective interests. And crabs in the proverbial bucket must be as adamant about not squandering the political moment as they have proven unwavering in serving an outgoing leader his comeuppance.