Jesse Jackson, irrelevant?

August 25, 2008 at 3:26 am (politics, snark) (, , , )

I was not really shocked when I heard that Jesse Jackson, was caught yet again uttering a crass statement into a hot mic during the taping break for a news show. The fact that it was about the first viable black candidate for President, Barack Obama, however was somewhat dismaying.

Stating to his co-guest on the show that Obama “talks down to the black community” when he lectures on morality in the black church and that he wants “to cut his nuts out” only adds to his earlier statements about Obama “acting white” regarding his silence about the Jena 6 debacle in Louisiana.

While Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson’s own son have been quick to distance themselves from these comments, this seems like an opportune time to critique the increasingly crotchety and out-of-touch old guard of the civil rights movement, which Jackson is a part. Jackson and Sharpton were alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and integral parts in securing equal rights for people of color in this country. Indeed, their continued willingness to publicly speak out about racism – however questionable their particular crusade may or may not be – is important and rarely seen in the more institutionalized black organizations (NAACP, etc).

However, somewhere around the 80s something started to go horribly wrong. Jackson began to compulsively rhyme, Sharpton insisted on keeping his flashy conk (relaxed, processed hair) and both started to believe too much in their own cult of personality rather than keeping their eyes on the prize. Now, I am not one of those people who would say that Jackson and Sharpton are relics in a racism-free world. I have more politically in common with the radicals of the 60s than the wishy-washy compromisers with a political office. For the record I also find fault with Barack Obama’s overemphasis on pull-yourself-up-by-the-bo

otstraps, personal responsibility speeches a la Bill Cosby. The problems of the black community were not created by laziness, stupidity or any other inherent pathology and they will not be solved by mere lectures that amount to telling us to get our shit together without addressing the persisting (notice I didn’t say past) structural inequalities that make this so difficult. I KNOW that men as smart as Jackson and Sharpton have an incredibly complex understanding of racial relations beyond the black victim/white oppressor dichotomy, but whenever they throw their 2 cents into a debate about race it SEEMS to always come down to this oversimplified equation.

Here are a few problems I have with the old guard and their position as spokesmen of the cause of civil rights:

1. Why does everyone have to be/sound like a preacher to represent the black community? This is really important to me because I think the role of the church and Christianity needs to be seriously, seriously examined in black progressive politics. At one point the black church functioned as the public sphere for a group of people hard pressed to find anywhere else to organize – for fear of their very lives. But what seems to be forgotten is that the same Christian theology that Dr. King used towards liberation was also used to justify the institutions of slavery, and prove the general inferiority of people of color (the story of Ham). Also, Marx’s statement that religion is the opiate of the masses perfectly sums up how apolitical the black church and believers have become. Too often when people have serious problems caused by poverty or inequality they are told to pray on it instead of engaging in collective action. The church has become a site for escapism where we can fantasize about how meekness and devotion to a deity will hopefully earn us a place in heaven if not an equal standing here on earth. Christianity is also fundamentally reactionary in terms of sexuality and gender roles. How many queer blacks are excluded from the public sphere of the black church and how many devout blacks are defecting to the conservative end of the political spectrum for abortion issues or to prevent gay marriage? As an agnostic black person I often find myself shut out of conversations that equate blackness with following Jesus or regularly attending church.There are blacks in all different religions (and non-religions) which deserve to be a part of discussions about the direction of our race.
On a personal note I find it annoying that every black intellectual or spokesperson (Tavis Smiley, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West…etc) finds it necessary to affect the cadence of a Southern preacher. It’s irritating precisely because it is an affectation. Worse, it’s goal appears to be to superficially align them with Dr. King or to downplay their extensive academic training in a “keeping-it-real” vernacular so as not to sound “white”, “uppity”, or “bourgie”.

2. They completely ignore gender issues . Many of the problems in the black community are inextricably linked to gender issues and the culture of hypermasculinity, yet these problems are only alluded to implicitly in discussions of the disintegration of the black family. Jackson and Sharpton’s main solution to the problem of single mothers is to chastise fathers for not staying with their family without asking why this happens in the first place. Besides the historical reasons that necessitated why black fathers often had to live away from their families to find work and send money back to them; the current problem is that the ideal of masculinity for young black men has been narrowed to material acquisition, sexual virility and brute strength. Instead of blaming this all on rap music or something equally specious, I would suggest that other avenues of traditionally masculine achievement in business, education, and production of knowledge were not only structurally closed off to men of color due to discrimination but black men were simply made to believe that they were not capable of it . Not to mention the class and religious issues that come into play with contraception use and young pregnancies. This doesn’t excuse the lack of respect towards women in the black community (or in any community for that matter), but it sheds some light on reasons other than amorality.
Old school civil rights leaders have long approached black issues in ways that made blackness synonymous with maleness. Jackson and Sharpton only deal with black women’s issues, rape and sexual harrassment cases if they present an opportunity for them to criticize white men. They are either conspicuously silent or side with the men in cases where it is a black woman who complains against a black man. Where was the support for the woman who charged Isiah Thomas with harassment or Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas or the underage girls against R. Kelly? Instead of taking these cases as a chance to critique attitudes towards women, often black women are accused of colluding with white men to bring powerful black men down.

3. They presume to speak for the rest of us Now this is as much their fault as it is the media’s. Men like Jackson and Sharpton are invited as talking heads for their pedigree and experience as much as their entertainment value. They will almost always give a pithy or ridiculous sound bite and therefore help the ratings. News talk shows will always invite the rare and extremist token black conservative for the same reason. However, there are other faces of the progressive black movement that are rarely seen in the media such as bell hooks, or the myriad of local, non-pastor community leaders that are helping people everyday on the grassroots level. If this is about advancing a political agenda that is helpful to blacks and not about advancing their own position, why can’t Jackson, Sharpton and the like defer to these younger activists for issues that they are not as in touch with any longer? And after so many years in the public eye why do they seem so media unsavvy in terms of simple mistakes like speaking into hot mics, badly worded comments and wild conspiracy theories that are sure to find eternal life on you tube or fox news? It’s not fair but a verbal slip from a black leader will get twice the airplay and derision than a similar slip from a McCain advisor for example, whose faux pas will get buried in page 15 of the NYT then forgotten. This is a fact that even I had to learn during two years of small-scale campus activism and media interviews at UT. How did they miss it?

4. Stop blaming young people and youth culture As I alluded to in the previous points, the older generation of civil rights leaders – and Bill Cosby – are all too
content to criticize this new fangled youth and hip hop culture for all of the problems of the black community. But children learn from their elders and many of the stubborn issues that we are facing stem from the oversights, flaws and mistakes of their generation. When several of the main architects of the movement, including Jackson himself are proven womanizers and have fathered babies outside of the marriage how can they be surprised at the rate of single black mothers and broken homes? When they complain that young people aren’t active and have bad values while ignoring the many young activists doing great work, then how can we close the generation gap?

I understand Jackson’s frustration with the overemphasis on morality in the black community. It’s easier for white Americans to blame black pathology than national policies or their own complicity in a system which privileges them. However, I’m just as frustrated with their slipups, hypocrisies and stubborn refusal to contend with how the face of racism has changed, the reality of spin and new media technologies and what it means for racial activism and public opinion, and continued ignoring (for the most part) of gender and sexuality issues.

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