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As Obama Rises, Old Guard Civil Rights Leaders Scowl

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The cynical braying about Obama's prospects has not been confined to the liberal civil rights quarters of black America. The conservative commentator Shelby Steele argued in his book "A Bound Man" that Obama isn't perceived as "black" enough to win over African American voters.

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In fact, Obama strategists have been struggling to convince black voters that Obama can actually win over white voters and be a viable candidate. Many blacks want to support a winner and hope that Obama will become more attractive to white voters, not less.

Part of this disconnect is a generational divide, one that is apparent in Jackson's own household. Following Jackson's criticism of Obama in the Chicago Sun-Times, his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., wrote a passionate defense of Obama's activist credentials.

As polls show increasing black support for Obama, Jackson, Sharpton and Young begin to look like a once-wealthy family that has lost its fortune but has to keep spending to maintain appearances. Obama's tepid early showing among blacks in the polls had more to do with name recognition and concerns about his viability as a candidate than with Jackson or Sharpton withholding their endorsement.

Ignoring Sharpton or Jackson is not the same thing as taking the black vote for granted. It is a reasonable calculation that neither of them can deliver many votes and certainly not enough to offset the number of white votes that their approval could lose Obama. Jackson and Sharpton might be holding out for a better deal in exchange for their support, but with Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock among Obama's list of supporters, they have little to bargain with.

If Obama makes a strong showing in the South Carolina primary -- the first with a substantial number of black voters -- it will become apparent that the black boy network has begun bouncing checks.

The irony is that for generations of black "firsts," the prerequisite for entering an institution was proving that you were just like the establishment that ran it. (Think of Jackie Robinson's approach to the major leagues, or the host of "articulate Negro" roles in Sidney Poitier's body of work.)

Obama has been vastly successful by doing just the opposite: masterfully positioning himself as an outsider. In the process, he's opened the door even wider for black outsiders. Too bad his predecessors refuse to help push him the rest of the way inside.

Jelani9@aol.com

William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College and the author of "The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays."


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