Do Black Activists Want a Black President?

Jackson's comments echo debate in black community about how to fix problems.

July 10, 2008— -- Everyone, even the Rev. Jesse Jackson himself, agrees that his comments about Sen. Barack Obama that an open microphone picked up were inappropriate.

Why he said them at all, however, is cause for debate.

Of the 20 words whispered in the moments before a Fox News interview, Jackson's castration threat got the most attention. But in that same utterance, Jackson also criticized the senator for the way he speaks to the black community and on one of his major political polices -- faith-based reform.

"See Barack Obama been, um, talking down to back people on his faith-based -- want to cut his nuts off," Jackson said in a video that aired Wednesday on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor."

Only Jackson can explain what drove him to say what he did. While the majority of Americans just heard the part about castration, African-Americans heard the echoes of an ongoing debate in the black community between the activists of Jackson's generation and the moderates of Obama's generation.

Much like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- another controversial minister with whom Obama split over incendiary remarks -- Jackson is a black activist of the old school. A civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King, Jackson believes that Obama's post-racial, consensus-building politics ignore the still troubling problems that face the black community, said Eric Easter, head of

"With Obama's nomination there is a sense that a change is coming," Easter said. "Some activists are worried about what that change really means. If there is broad acceptance of a black candidate, does that mean they can no longer argue that racism is a problem?"

The irony for civil rights era activists is that if Obama, a black man, gets elected, it makes it much more difficult for them to argue for funding and focused attention on helping the victims of racism, Easter said. If Obama continues to chide the black community to fix its own problems rather than offering political solutions, activists will have an even harder time convincing white America that African-American communities need aid.

"There is a concern that there is going to be a tradeoff," Easter said. "We'll have a black man in the White House, so people will stop thinking they have to be concerned about the pathologies that affect the black community."

Those "pathologies" -- things like the dropout rate among black students, absent fathers in black families and drug use in black communities -- are issues that Obama has addressed. But the way he has done so, preaching (sometimes even in church) to African-Americans about what they need to do differently, rather than talk about systemic, governmental issues that need be addressed, has irked some people, including Jackson.

"But if we are honest with ourselves," Obama told a black church on Fathers Day, "we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing -- missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it."

It's that kind of talk that has Jackson angry, according to Lorenzo Morris, chairman of the political science department at Howard University.

"This is really an interracial issue rather than intraracial issue," Morris said. "Jackson is worried about the perception of Obama and his comments in the broader American community.

"There is a generational rift about exposure, experience and access," he added. "The kids who grew up during the civil rights movement are now adults, integrated and media savvy. Jackson speaks in a way that reflects a time when blacks got little attention from the mainstream media. Obama speaks in a way that reflects his being accustomed to being heard in the white community."

Jackson was quick to apologize even before the clip of his comment aired on Fox, but he was equally quick to explain himself and bring Obama to task for "talking down" to the black community and black men in particular.

"For any harm or hurt that this hot mic private conversation may have caused, I apologize," he said. "My appeal was for the moral content of his message to not only deal with the personal and moral responsibility of black males , but to deal with the collective moral responsibility of government and the public policy which would be a corrective action for the lack of good choices that often led to their irresponsibility."

According to Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant, the argument over whether African-Americans themselves or the government is responsible for fixing problems affecting the black community is moot.

"What was lost in Rev. Jackson's crude castration reference," she said, "was an important point about the need to have a conversation about both black fathers' moral responsibility and the importance government intervention. You can't have one without the other."

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