Leading article: The tired politics of racial division

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama has upset the veteran American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Normally, a squabble between party allies in an election year would be damaging. But it is hard to see this particular disagreement as anything but a boost for the Democratic nominee's campaign to become the first black President of the United States.

For all his valuable work in fighting for racial equality over the years, Mr Jackson is a member of a political generation distinguished by its inability to move on from the battles and grudges of the past. He was unwittingly picked up by a microphone in a television studio accusing Mr Obama of "talking down to black people" in a series of speeches on the theme of personal responsibility that the Illinois senator made in black churches.

Mr Jackson accused Mr Obama of being patronising, but actually his annoyance seems to spring more from the fact that the Democratic nominee is not following the traditional political script on race and economic disadvantage that Mr Jackson himself played such a central role in writing. Mr Jackson has since apologised for the crudeness of his remarks, but maintains that he would like to see Mr Obama make more of factors such as unemployment and the mortgage crisis as influences on the dire circumstances in which many black Americans live.

The problem with this approach is that the economic downturn and the credit crisis are affecting Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. Would it really be wise for a presidential candidate to concentrate on the impact of the economic crisis on one section of the population? It would seem that Mr Obama's real crime in Mr Jackson's eyes is that he is not interested in playing the politics of racial division.

Mr Jackson is not the first politician to have been wrong-footed by Mr Obama's determination to break the traditional mould of American political discourse. Bill Clinton's attempt in the recent primary race to bracket the Illinois senator with Mr Jackson, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, backfired badly. This was, in large part, because Mr Obama so manifestly represents a break with that era.

The great merit of Mr Obama's campaign for the presidency has been his willingness to project himself as a unifier of all Americans, regardless of the colour of their skin. The speech Mr Obama made at the height of the row about the extreme views of his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, was a brilliant rebuttal of the idea that American society must always be split along racial lines. If Mr Obama has any sense, he will ignore Mr Jackson's advice and stick with the message of hope that has served him so well.

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