Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
In the Jesse Jackson controversy, one thing’s getting lost: Jackson’s got a solid point.
Obama has been going out of his way to publicly upbraid black audiences. And he knows—he has to know—that by doing so, he’s ingratiating himself with white audiences.
And not just those white working class audiences that the mainstream media loves to talk about.
White audiences, in general, for there is racism, let’s face it, up and down the class totem pole.
Obama has a bad habit of denouncing black people. He’s done this repeatedly on the campaign trail, not just with the "black fathers are MIA" line.
As author Kevin Alexander Gray, who ran Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign in South Carolina, has pointed out, Obama also said "a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars."
Professor Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania has been on to this trick of Obama’s for some time now.
Writing in the May issue of The Progressive, Reed argued: "His political repertoire has always included the repugnant stratagem of using connection with black audiences in exactly the same way Bill Clinton didi.e., getting props both for emoting with the black crowd and talking through them to affirm a victim-blaming 'tough love' message that focuses on alleged behavioral pathologies in poor black communities. Because he’s able to claim racial insider standing, he actually goes beyond Clinton and rehearses the scurrilous and ridiculous sort of narrative Bill Cosby has made infamous."
As Reed suggests, Obama is clearly playing off of stereotypes, and trying to exploit white resentment toward African Americans.
He is reinforcing the idea that the problems blacks face are of their own making, and that there is a peculiar black culture of poverty that is to blame—rather than deindustrialization and the malignant neglect of government and the albatross of racism.
Obama’s scolding of black males is the same ideological giveaway as his endorsement of the faith-based initiative: that government can’t solve our problems. And that’s a giveaway the rightwing is more than happy to take.
(By the way, is there a father in the land who was not appalled at Jesse Jackson Jr.’s hasty denunciation of his own dad? Sure, the Reverend used unfortunate and crude language, and he apologized right away for it. But in this moment of maximum public embarrassment, he certainly didn’t need his own son to pile on with such haste and gusto. Calling the comments "reckless," "divisive," "demeaning," and "ugly," Jesse Jackson Jr. leaped in to say how "deeply outraged" he was by them. And in a personal dig, he added that his father "should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself." This unseemly response may reflect a deeper, underlying tension between son and father. Thanksgiving with the Jackson family may be a little dicey this year.)
Obama is playing a very dangerous game.
It might help him win in November, just as the Rev. Jackson’s remarks might be a foil that Obama can use to his advantage.
But in the process, Obama is reinforcing negative attitudes toward blacks in the white community, he is undermining the case for governmental solutions to our urgent social problems, and he is lessening support for specific policies such as affirmative action that are geared toward dealing with the still lingering, real, and crippling effects of racism.
That would be an ironic outcome of the Obama campaign.