By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2008
The larger point of Jesse L. Jackson's criticism of Barack Obama -- if not the crude way he expressed it -- touched a nerve among some African American political activists who have been unhappy about the senator 's pointed critiques of absentee fathers and other problems in the black community.
Jackson, an Obama supporter, spent much of yesterday apologizing for a remark that was caught by a Fox News microphone and aired Wednesday on the network. Jackson was overheard saying Obama's pitch to expand President Bush's federal assistance for faith-based social service programs was "talking down to black people." He then used a base phrase to say what he wanted to do to the senator from Illinois.
But he also told CNN that while he agrees with Obama's arguments that blacks must do more to improve their lot, "the moral message must be a much broader message. What we need really is racial justice and urban policy and jobs and health care."
Michael Eric Dyson, a vocal Obama backer and a sociology professor at Georgetown University, said he worries that the candidate's speeches criticizing the behavior of African Americans will distract attention from larger societal issues. "I'm quibbling with the use of his speeches," he said yesterday.
Writing in Time magazine last month, Dyson likened Obama's critiques of the black community to that of comedian Chris Rock, but noted: "Rock's humor is so effective because he is just as hard on whites as on blacks. That's a part of the routine Obama has not yet adopted."
Ronald Walters, who teaches at the University of Maryland, worked on Jackson's presidential campaigns in the 1980s. He criticized a speech Obama gave last month chastising black fathers who were "acting like boys instead of men," and adding that "we need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one."
Walters said that "we're not electing him to be preacher in chief," and that Obama needs to give more speeches about how he would help black communities.
Eric Easter, a blogger on the joint Web site of Jet and Ebony, two black-oriented magazines, wrote yesterday that some of Obama's rhetoric "smacked of calculated political expediency" in an effort to win over white voters.
The criticism was similar in some ways to the reaction to comedian Bill Cosby, who over the past decade made some of the same points as Obama.
But Al Sharpton, a New York civil rights activist, said Obama has been giving the right message, especially in his Father's Day speech.
"It was a courageous, necessary statement," Sharpton said. "I think people misunderstand. I disagree that he's talking down to black people. The civil rights movement of the 21st century must be government accountability and personal responsibility."
Aides to Obama defended his remarks, with spokesman Bill Burton noting that the candidate "has spoken and written for many years about the issue of parental responsibility."
Obama gave a speech similar to his Father's Day address in 2006, before he was running for president. Early in his presidential run, he complained in speeches to black audiences of blacks disenfranchising themselves by not voting, took rappers to task for their language, and decried "anti-intellectualism" in the black community, including black children telling peers who get good grades that they are "acting white."
And while Jackson and others suggested he has not focused enough on other issues facing blacks, Obama has laid out proposals such as providing more funding to revitalize the economy in urban areas. He also frequently cites his experience as a community organizer in Chicago.
For Obama, distancing himself from a controversial black figure such as Jackson may help him among white voters. But that possibility raised questions about whether the senator is targeting blacks for political purposes.
Kevin Alexander Gray, who worked for Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, compared it to a move by Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who in 1992 famously attacked political activist Sister Souljah for saying, "If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"
Obama aides rejected the comparison, and the candidate himself, in his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," called Clinton's attack "clumsy and transparent."