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In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Attorney General Bill Barr discusses systemic racism. (Photo: YouTube Screengrab/CNN)

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Attorney General Bill Barr discusses systemic racism. (Photo: YouTube screengrab/CNN)

Bill Barr’s Deceitful Distortion of Jesse Jackson

A 1998 statement is twisted to support a scenario of prejudice and hate.

David Masciotra

The right wing is committed to the obliteration of context. Whether operating out of the Oval Office or the basement of Sean Hannity’s Long Island mansion, its propagandists strive to convince Americans that simple issues are hazy and complex, and that complicated realities are simple. It’s one way for an increasingly destructive Republican Party to maintain power, while not even making an effort to represent the interests of the American people.

Recently, Attorney General William Barr offered an illustrative example of this manipulative tactic as hideous as his corrupt leadership of the Department of Justice. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Barr performed rhetorical acrobatics to avoid the implications of questions regarding “systemic racism” in American law enforcement, prisons, and courtrooms. After claiming—contrary to the facts—that Jacob Blake was “armed” when Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officers shot him, and while denying the persistence of racial bias in the criminal justice system, the smugly oblivious Barr attempted to land on an unlikely source of support: Jesse Jackson.

“I think there are some situations where statistics would suggest that Blacks are treated differently,” Barr conceded before reverting back to his original position, “but that is not necessarily racism. Didn’t Jesse Jackson say that when he looks behind him that he’s more scared if he sees a group of Black youths behind him than if he sees a group of white youths behind him? Does that make him a racist?”

"Like a criminal himself, Barr was attempting to smuggle his own genteel racism past customs."

Barr repeated the question as if his misuse of Jackson’s words demolished decades of evidence indicating widespread racial profiling against Blacks and Latinos, heavier sentences for nonwhite convicts than their white counterparts, and disproportionate rates of police brutality in Black neighborhoods. Like a criminal himself, Barr was attempting to smuggle his own genteel racism past customs.

Taken in proper context, what Jackson actually said, coupled with his advocacy on issues of criminal justice, exposes not only Barr’s dishonesty, but also the crux of America’s poisonous police culture.

What Jackson said, at a November 1998 meeting of Operation PUSH in Chicago:

There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved… After all we have been through. Just to think we can’t walk down our own streets, how humiliating.

I interviewed Jackson many times for my new book, I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters, and in one of our conversations I asked him about that previous admission relating to the demographics of inner-city crime.

Jackson began by stating the obvious, “It is the only thing I’ve said that the right ever quotes approvingly, but they ignore the context.” He explained that when he lived in Washington, DC, during the 1990s, serving as “shadow senator” of the District of Columbia, there was a spate of gang-related shootings on his block, one of them occurring while his wife was standing outside their home. It was in reaction to that specific outbreak of violence that Jackson bemoaned how it “breaks his heart” that he feels safer if a group of young men trailing him at night are not Black.

“In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, without exception, I would feel less secure and more in danger if a crowd following me was white,” Jackson added in our conversation, referring to the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist sheriff departments, state troopers, and wild eyed white mobs that, for most of American history, waged a campaign of terrorism against Black citizens without legal consequence.

Jackson lamented the modern tragedy of many young Black men destroying each other for drug profits and the expansion of gangland turf, but explained that it is the “predictable result of 50 years of systemic neglect.” Coining a memorable phrase, Jackson said with characteristic brio, “We have replaced a domestic Marshall Plan with martial law.”

Prior to Jackson’s sorrowful confession, Congress debated the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill. Testifying before the legislative body, Jackson gave a thunderous and prescient denunciation of the draconian measures aimed at curbing then-escalating crime rates in American cities. Warning against the inevitability of mass incarceration, racial profiling, and police brutality, Jackson asserted that “spending more money on severe police tactics and building more prisons is not the answer to inner city crime.”

He told Congress that he shared concerns about unlawful behavior in the streets, citing the shootings that took place on his block, but identified those same streets as socially and economically barren: “There is not one after school program, job training site, or arts center in my neighborhood.”

To this day, Jackson will often tell audiences and interviewers that it “costs less and is more beneficial to address the effects of poverty on the front end with schools and health care than paying on the back end with jails and welfare.”

After Bill Barr ripped Jackson’s statement out of context, the civil rights leader issued a press release inviting Barr to discuss issues of race and criminal justice: “If Mr. Barr wants to know what I said in context and is willing to talk with me and not just about me, we can have that conversation.”

Barr offered no response to Jackson’s invitation.

Jackson is in a unique position to provide insight to the attorney general, but knowledge, sensitivity, and appreciation of nuance are precisely what the Republican Party, in its approach not only to racial injustice but all of America’s social problems, seek to eliminate from political debate.

If Barr, President Trump, and adherents of right wing ideology actually were interested in learning anything substantive about crime, law enforcement, and the ongoing failures of the legal system, they could meet with Jackson, but they could also take Jackson’s advice by reading the Justice Department’s 2015 report on Ferguson, Missouri, which condemned that town’s police department for systematically harassing its black residents, and treating them as little more than walking ATMs for municipal coffers.

“Many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the Justice Department wrote before explaining that “From 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of people stopped, 90 percent of people who received a citation, and 93 percent of people arrested were Black.”

Jackson said of what the Justice Department uncovered in Ferguson that, “The report is essential reading to understand how blacks and whites often live in two separate realities, even in the same town”

The findings of the Ferguson investigation demonstrate stagnation when it comes to combating severe class and racial inequities. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission—a bipartisan, almost entirely white committee of public officials—to study the cause of riots in American cities. The group concluded that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”

Jesse Jackson calls the Kerner Report “a measure of what it means to be serious in addressing the problems of our society.” He has condemned the reactionary Republican Party for repeatedly ignoring its warnings, while criticizing the timid Democratic Party for failing to fully adopt its broad policy agenda to end racial and class stratification.

Barr’s deceitful attempt to co-opt Jesse Jackson’s admission of personal pain regarding crime on his Washington block 22 years ago proves, as if there was any doubt, that he and his political party have no serious intention to address the injustice of the United States, whether it is the persistence of poverty or the unconstitutional aggression of police procedure.

Instead, by twisting Reverend Jackson’s words, Barr makes a contemptible effort to conceal hatred for Black Americans by depicting an entire race as criminal and dangerous, and to use that hatred to justify a set of policies that, no matter their euphemistic label, are little more than socially sanctioned abuse.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
David Masciotra

David Masciotra

David Masciotra  is a regular contributor to Salon, and the author of five books, including "Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen" (Continuum Books, 2010) and the newest, "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (I.B. Tauris, 2020). His website is

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