By Matthew Rothschild on July 12, 2008

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 did—i.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.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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