Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

If Barack Obama becomes President, it will be thanks to the struggles of the civil rights generation. But he can't expect gratitude from all of them
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The Independent Online

Ah, the perils of the open microphone. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Dick Cheney are among those bitten by this snake in the electronic grass.

Last week, it was the turn of Jesse Jackson. "Cut his nuts out", the black civil rights leader was caught remarking of Barack Obama, after an interview on Fox News. Unbeknown to Jackson, however, every word was still being picked up for posterity.

Mostly, such incidents are quickly forgotten. Who remembers Bush and Cheney privately agreeing that a certain New York Times reporter was "a major-league asshole"? But Jackson's suggestion that Obama (below) might usefully be castrated is a major-league matter. Not in terms of any damage (physical or political) to the candidate, but in terms of the momentous shift under way in the leadership of black America.

In fact, the "nuts" bit is a sideshow. Jackson's really telling off-the-record words were how Obama had been "talking down to blacks" when he demanded that black fathers do a better job of bringing up their children. That he chose to spotlight the failings of black families, and of deadbeat absentee dads in particular, is not new. The comedian Bill Cosby was roundly criticised in his time for saying much the same.

Indeed, the decline of the black family has been a constant theme of the much-reviled Louis Farrakhan. He, of course, starts from a different premise: that blacks shouldn't expect anything from America's irredeemably racist white rulers. But Farrakhan's conclusion is the same as Obama's. His people must set their own society in order; no one else will do it for them.

That, however, has not been the view of Jesse Jackson, long honorary president of black America. His pedigree goes back to the civil rights struggle and his close association with Martin Luther King, by whose side he had stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was cut down. Jackson's runs for President, in 1984 and in particular 1988, when he won several primaries, have hitherto been the high-water mark of black achievement in a white political system. Even when he was no longer a candidate, the Jackson speech was a traditional highlight of Democratic conventions.

But now there's Barack Obama. Jackson would not be human if he were not jealous of Obama's rise – if he did not see the young Illinois Senator as an upstart half-white, half-foreign interloper who never paid his dues on the civil rights front line.

Already, Obama has gone further in the white political system than Jackson ever did. Jackson is a spell-binding speaker – but Obama may be even better. If Obama wins the White House in November, the honorary president of black America would be trumped, once and for all, by the first official black President of all America.

Indeed, the very Jackson name is no longer copyrighted. Say Jesse Jackson these days and you could equally be referring to his fast-rising son. Already an effective congressman from Illinois and a national co-chair of Obama's presidential campaign, Jesse Jr stands closer to the levers of power in the US than his father ever did. Nothing illustrates the generational changing of the guard in black America like the rebuke delivered to Jesse Sr by Jesse Jr in the wake of last week's incident.

"Revd Jackson is my dad, and I'll always love him," the son said in a statement. But "I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself." Is there no respect any more, one might wonder.

But this is no mere family split. It is a cameo of history on the march. Jesse Jackson's roots are in the 1950s and 1960s, and in particular 1968, the year King and Bobby Kennedy died, black rioters put a torch to American cities, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered their black-power salute at the Mexico City Olympics. The famous photo of the pair, heads bowed and fists clenched, has lost none of its power.

But it might be from another era, not a mere four decades ago. As for Smith and Carlos themselves, they are apparently no longer on speaking terms, each claiming credit for the gesture. Alas, their feud is as relevant today as a re-run of the Civil War.

Jackson the politician, with his message of seeking to put right the injustices inflicted on his race, was fashioned by those times. Obama has a different perspective. He, and by extension Jesse Jr, have run – or tried to run – a virtually post-racial campaign. Only when he was forced to, by the rantings of his former pastor, did he address the issue head on. Faced with the choice last autumn between joining a high-profile protest march in support of six black juveniles arrested after a racially charged incident in Jena, Louisiana (as Jesse Sr urged), and continuing his caucus campaign in all-white Iowa (as Jesse Jr urged), Obama chose the latter. He would win the caucuses – but not before Jesse Sr had accused him of "acting like he's white" in the Jena affair.

None of this is to argue that America no longer has a race problem, or that Obama is a miracle cure for it. Much progress has been made in the past 40 years, but many wounds still fester. Blacks are still sent to prison in vastly disproportionate numbers. Any study of wealth shows them far behind whites. Many subtle forms of discrimination persist, whatever the law says.

Indeed race, America's so-called "original sin", is a reason the Jackson affair is likely to help, rather than hurt, the Democratic candidate. As the primaries in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania showed, Obama's big problem is with poorer whites – those most likely to be uneasy with a black candidate. That Obama has been so crudely rebuked by the historic leader of black America will do his cause no harm with this vital segment of the electorate.

Once upon a time, a falling out with Jackson was seen as a disaster for a Democratic candidate, on the grounds it would cost him the black vote – as if this latter were a monolithic political bloc that made up its collective mind solely on the basis of race. Bill Clinton, however, called this bluff during his 1992 campaign when he strongly criticised the black recording star Sister Souljah for some intemperate anti-white remarks, yet still raked in black votes on election day.

To suppose Obama will lose support because of a spat with Jackson is ludicrous. "Cut his nuts out" is not only Obama's Sister Souljah moment. In America's black politics, it is proof that a baton has been definitively passed.

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