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What Jesse Jackson Said

For Jesse and Barack, it's not what you say, but where, when and to whom you say it

Eric Easter

Jesse Jackson made a mistake and he has appropriately apologized. His language was unnecessary, his timing off and the venue (Fox News of all places) gave the comment an illegitimate quality that marred the underlying point Jackson was making, though the castration analogy didn't exactly help either. It's all about context. In another setting, stated another way to a different group of people, his comment cold have had the power to begin a dialogue to address some of the concerns about Obama's appeal to mainstream voters and what that means.

But of course, it's not just what you say, it's where, how, when and to whom that matter as well. He learned a lesson. But according to quite a number of prominent black activists who are strong Obama supporters but "lovingly critical," Obama should learn a lesson about what he says and to whom as well.

Far from some sign of a rift between Jackson and Obama, what Jackson said was repeated many times in various forms at the recent Rainbow PUSH Coalition by many thoughtful Black activists who, while supportive of Obama, also choose to be "lovingly critical" to ensure that Obama lives up to the promise he presents.

That this growing opinion surfaced in a troubling way is unfortunate, but the Obama campaign and Obama himself would be wrong not to listen to the writing between the lines.

At specific is Obama's Father's Day speech at Apostolic Church that focused on several points regarding the strengthening of urban families but focused most aggressively on the pathologies of a disturbing percentage of Black men. The fact is that Obama has given some version of his responsibility speech for years. He has written about it as well and as the son of an absentee father he speaks of the issue with passion and authority. It is a Cosby-esque speech (but so) and the message needs to be heard. But, as with Jackson's example, it's not what you say, it's all about where, when and to whom.

When Obama uses a Black church pulpit to send his message of responsibility, he is preaching to the choir both literally and figuratively. The people who need to hear that message are neither on the choir nor in the church, which of course, is part of the problem.

But that particular speech was not in just any church. It was in the first Chicago church Obama attended after repudiating Jeremiah Wright and after resigning Wright's Trinity Church after incendiary comments made by Father Micheal Pfleger. The press and the world was watching and hanging on every word.

The fear among critics is that the real audience that day was not the Black people in the pews at all, but the white people in middle America looking for a strong signal that Obama was rejecting the politics of racial division and animosity. By choosing that moment to castigate Black fathers, some worry that Obama gave public voice to what white people whisper about Blacks in their living rooms and cemented his image as a post-racial savior at the expense of Black men. Whether that was Obama' s intention or whether he just figured it was Father's Day so why not do the absent Father stump speech again is impossible to know, but the event smacked of calculated political expediency that troubled more than a few people.

Arguably, Obama could have used that international exposure to salute the majority of Black fathers who provide strong role models. Or, since the issue was his choice of pastors, he could have simply sat down and listened to a safer sermon.

But the Father's Day speech is only indicative of a broader issue. Rightly or wrongly, some Black progressives are deeply suspicious of the change in white America that has led to Obama's position. Specifically that white people don't just want political change, they want a change in the racial dynamic. And hearing about black problems does not fit into their idea of this new America that will be created when Obama becomes president. There are equal parts of truth, paranoia and resistance to change in that suspicion. That's one of the reasons Jackson said what he did.

No one realistically expects that the first Black man with a real shot at President of the United States was going to be the reincarnation of Stokely Carmichael, but to the extent that some highly visible supporters are worried that Obama's move to the center is a move away from urban issues and the community suffering from those issues, Senator Obama has reason to be concerned. Inelegantly, rudely and stupidly, that's what Jesse Jackson was suggesting.

That don't make him wrong though.

Eric Easter is Chief of Digital Strategy for Johnson Publishing, Inc. He writes about politics, culture and technology for

© 2008 Johnson Publishing Company, Inc

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