Jesse's Gift

A big controversy surfaced yesterday over Jesse Jackson’s comment—heard on a ‘hot mic’—while being interviewed by Fox News. According to Jackson, Senator Obama appears elitist and seems to “talk down” to African Americans. It is clear that old-line civil rights leaders such as Jackson have a degree of discomfort with the Obama message.

Just recently, in a Father’s Day speech, Senator Obama criticized the African American community for tolerating too many absent fathers and not putting enough emphasis on education and family values. It was a controversial, yet audacious speech but it contrasted with the more traditional rhetoric of civil rights leaders. This is why it’s been said that Obama transcends race because he sounds more modern and more in tune with today’s reality. Back in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, it was normal that black leaders talk about discrimination and the lack of equal opportunities because we were still coming to grips with the revolutionary changes that had gradually emerged since the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on segregated schools. Jesse Jackson was a candidate for the Presidency of the United States both in 1984 and 1988 where this rhetoric ruled the day among African Americans. But his candidacy was unsuccessful because he was not seen to be unifying Americans.

Obama’s candidacy may be historic because he is the presumptive nominee of one of the two major political parties, but his candidacy is more than that of a demographic group representative. His candidacy has been presented as one of hope and change, and has more to do with moral leadership and how politics must be conducted than it does with renewing the discourse of the civil rights movement. This is why Obama needs to appeal beyond the African American community and attract non-black voters on the basis of his vision and his message if he is to be successful in winning the presidency. While Jesse Jackson may have spoken for a number of the more traditional leadership of black America, he clearly helps portray the Obama candidacy as more than one of the first black president to be elected. Black America will stay supportive of Barack Obama, notwithstanding Jesse Jackson’s remarks, but white America can look at Obama as someone new and modern. His potential to unify America may appear to be greater today to white America than it was before Jesse’s intervention. And that, ironically, may turn out to be a gift to Obama’s campaign.