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A clash of generations in black community…

July 14, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

( Jackson incident may reveal emerging divide…

The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s offhand insult of Barack Obama last week has exposed a heated debate over whether Obama’s groundbreaking presidential campaign – and his repeated challenge to the black community to straighten out its own affairs – is displacing and alienating some in Jackson’s generation of black leadership, which held the government accountable for the plight of African-Americans.

Though Jackson apologized profusely for the remark, he still faced intense criticism, not least a sharply worded rebuke from his namesake son, who is a congressman and an Obama campaign official. Some in the black community said the clash demonstrates the elder Jackson’s resentment at having to make way for a new generation of leaders like Obama, who believe that black America is not blameless for its chronic social problems.

Jesse Jackson isn’t known for saying the smartest things,” said Vernon Odemns, 19, who was shopping at the Pentagon City Mall with Derrell Lip scomb late last week. Obama, he said, “is saying what we need to hear. A lot of our problems [in the black community] start at home.”

Lipscomb, 18, said Jackson is behind the times: “He doesn’t understand that racism really isn’t the main thing right now.”

Several prominent black political figures note that Jackson expressed aloud what some black voters had kept to themselves: a suspicion that Obama’s criticism of deadbeat dads and undisciplined households is a play for more-conservative white voters. That part of the debate, they say, has been largely kept quiet to avoid damaging Obama’s historic bid for the presidency.

Many believe a public discussion could undermine Obama’s support among African-Americans, a constituency he will need behind him at full strength to defeat Republican challenger John McCain. Though black voters turned out for Obama in record numbers during the marathon Democratic primaries, any erosion of that support could mean the difference in battleground states like Georgia and North Carolina.

We don’t need Jesse Jackson to be divisive,” said Jerome Jenkins, 44, sipping a glass of wine at a downtown Washington cigar bar. “It’s Barack’s time. If the man’s going to be president, let him be president.”

By making the debate public, Jenkins said, Jackson feeds white-held stereotypes: “They’ll say, ‘Look at the blacks – they still can’t get together,’ ” he said.

The controversy erupted Wednesday when Jackson, waiting to start an interview on Fox News, whispered to fellow guest Reed Tuckson, executive vice president and chief medical officer of United Health Group Inc., that Obama has been “talking down to black people” with speeches on personal responsibility.

Jackson, 66, was referring to a speech the Illinois senator gave on Father’s Day last month at one of Chicago’s largest black churches. Obama, who was a child when his father abandoned their family, told the congregation they should set better examples for their children because “too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes.”

Apparently not realizing his lapel microphone was on at the time, Jackson used a vulgar reference when he muttered to Tuckson about how angry he was about the Obama’s rhetoric.

After the interview, Fox News announced it had captured Jackson’s remarks and would make them public. As word of the incident swept across the Internet and 24-hour cable news channels, Jackson tried damage control, apologized to Obama over the phone and on the airwaves. Obama accepted the apology.

Within hours, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., 43, an Illinois Democrat and cochairman of Obama’s national campaign, issued a statement rebuking his father for “his ugly rhetoric.” The younger Jackson, whom many consider to have ambitions for Obama’s Senate seat if he becomes president, said his father “should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

The dust-up “is the classic battle between the old and new politics” among African-Americans, said Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political science professor who specializes in race and politics.

Unlike Jackson, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, 46, and the younger Jackson represent “the new generation which is less confrontational, more willing to compromise [with whites] and play inside the game of politics,” Haynie said. They see themselves not as activists but as politicians who are elected to solve problems, even if it means adopting moderate or conservative positions.

William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy center, said some believe Obama’s criticism of the black community has spurred debate because “every time someone who is not a conservative talks about personal responsibility, he or she is accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It suggests in so many words that the people at issue are not pure victims.”

That’s a message liberals and some black people find disturbing, Galston said, because “it takes white America and privileged America off the hook.”

Yet most blacks would rather keep quiet about their discomfort with that message if it means helping elect the first African-American president.

On the Internet, a sampling of bloggers and African-American-themed websites showed that most sided with Obama and against Jackson, and an unscientific survey conducted by Black Voices found that 54 percent of those who participated had a negative opinion of Jackson.

But Ron Walters, who managed Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign and now is a University of Maryland political science professor said Jackson inartfully made a legitimate point: Obama must balance his remarks toward black voters if he wants to maintain a high level of support.

There’s a very healthy discussion in the black community about how Barack Obama very often goes to black venues and talks about black responsibility, and then goes across town to white venues and talks about public policy,” Walters said.

The positive news for Obama, Walters said, is that the debate is happening now rather than late in the campaign. And Obama is likely to solve the problem sooner rather than later when he addresses the annual NAACP convention this week in Cincinnati, he said.

The way to deal with this is to go to the NAACP convention and give a hard-hitting address on public policy and put this to rest,” Walters said.

Written By Joseph Williams

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