Jesse, Barack, and African-American Support

Jesse Jackson's infamous "hot mic" remarks have raised to the surface tensions seen earlier within the black community.

Only days have passed, and already the uproar over Brother Jesse's remarks have been superseded by yet another crisis, courtesy of Eustace Tilley. It can't be said that this is a dull campaign.

But it'll pay us to linger awhile over the Reverend's street insult thrown the Senator's way for the offense of talking down to blacks. Most of the incident's context has been elided by the mass media, no doubt due to its involving touchy questions of race. But a closer look will reveal much about Obama's relations with fellow blacks, his own attitudes, and what effect all this may have on his electoral chances.

Warning: from here on, we're walking through a minefield -- step only where I step, and don't lose your balance. If it all goes bad, I'll just have to leave you here.

Whites who lack experience in dealing with the black community usually view it as a monolith, a single bloc united in attitudes, behavior, and beliefs. It is, of course, no such thing. Like any other community, it has its factions and interest groups, its rifts and feuds. 

Among these, there is the longtime rivalry between "lightskin" blacks -- blacks with a large  and visible measure of European ancestry, and those of more African appearance. Darker blacks have long believed that their lighter neighbors (the old pejorative was "high yellow") were given opportunities that they were denied. (There doesn't appear to be a lot of evidence for this.) The result was the formation of cliques, with lighter-skinned blacks to one side and darker to the other. This schism has had a distinct influence on the history of the modern black community.

Another such rift involves foreign-born blacks, particularly blacks from the West Indies. Blacks of Caribbean ancestry were also held to have been allowed privileges denied native-born blacks. Thomas Sowell has dealt with this in detail in several of his ethnographic studies. It is undeniable that blacks of West Indian origin (a group that includes figures such as Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Colin Powell) have been successful all out of proportion to their numbers. No complete explanation for this fact exists (my own guess is that it's a product of a superior British-derived educational system.)

Whatever the case, the results have created deep resentment among American-born blacks. (This is one reason why Powell, who achieved a level of political power unequaled by any other figure of African descent, generated little enthusiasm among blacks. Powell's family was from Jamaica, and that was that.)

So here we have a candidate who is undeniably light-skinned, with more than a touch of the European to his features, whose father was a Kenyan, whose mother was a white Midwesterner, and who was raised in Hawaii by his mother's family.

Clearly, this is a candidate who should be stepping lightly as involves racial matters, who should be making a point of being seen listening intently at the feet of respected elders, who should not be making any prescriptions or laying down any laws as regards the larger community. A candidate who, in recent weeks, has been doing anything but.

A year ago, a question commonly asked was whether Obama was "black" enough. The argument was that he lacked certain connections to black American experience -- the stigma of slavery, the triumph over segregation, the street cred that comes only from a life spent within the community. The basis of this argument was more historical than racial. In much the same way, a European coming to the U.S. would be deaf to everyday resonances apparent to those born here. (I grew up only ten miles from the Oriskany battlefield. To a non-American, this would be no more than history, if that. To me, it was part of life.) There was much more to this contention than was granted at the time, and the public debate over it was not so much concluded as overshadowed by racial innuendo from Bill Clinton in support of Hillary, provoking racial solidarity in response.

Jesse Jackson's comment (which joins "Hymietown" as evidence of his undying eloquence), might indicate that such feelings are still very much alive in the black community. After all, blacks such as Bill Cosby have made arguments similar to those of Obama's without raising such a visceral reaction. Why should Obama be an exception?

Because (to this outsider's eyes) the community views Obama as an outsider. Not an "American black" in the same sense as themselves or their neighbors, but an alien figure, someone from a completely different background who is taking liberties in lecturing them on their problems and shortcomings. Such a viewpoint is in no way limited to blacks. How often do we see overseas visitors leaping into domestic political debates in order to instruct us on the way things should be done from the European perspective?  And how often are they repulsed with bruised feelings? (Part of the European caricature of Americans as rabid yahoos stems from such confrontations.) Commenting on other people's problems on any level -- personal, political, or cultural -- requires almost superhuman politesse and diplomacy. These are not qualities that play a large part in the Obama legend.

And yet Obama persists, going before the NAACP only days after Jackson's outburst to once again lecture the black community on its difficulties. There's no question he's sincere in his concern. But it may well be the case, as indicated by Jackson, that blacks do not look upon him as a brother offering advice, but as an interloper meddling in things that are none of his affair. (The possibility also exists that these efforts are a method of impressing whites, part of his "run to the center". It's not difficult to imagine what some blacks would make of that.)

If this is true, Obama's support among blacks may be a lot softer than is generally taken to be the case. And black support is the keystone of his entire strategy. It forms the very basis of his appeal -- Obama's reputation as racial healer is the glue that holds together the college rebels and the limo liberals that form the other wings of his coalition. He is now seeking to expand that support across the country as a whole. Obama's pose as messiah has served him well. But suppose the savior is rejected? What happens to his strategy then?

It may be difficult for Obama to grasp, given his intense self-identification with the black community as revealed by his stint as a community activist and as a representative of ACORN, that he remains an outsider. But Jackson's words, and the coolness of the response from the blacks who comprise the core of his support, suggest it's something he needs to consider.