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Jesse Jackson's Obama problem: He needs Barack more than Barack needs him



Obama_jackson200 There's a telling moment in Barack Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father, in which the future presidential candidate heads back to his father's homeland in Kenya, only to find a huge number of relatives jockeying to know him because they hope he can give them something.

He eventually finds out from a cousin that his father was taken advantage of by some of these same relatives, who glommed onto him after he returned from studying abroad (and fathering Barack) and rejected him when he was forced out of his well-paying government job. "If everyone is family, no one is family," the relative warned the younger Obama.

I was reminded of that moment earlier this week, when Jesse Jackson's blunt comments about Barack Obama were aired by Fox News.

I'm sure you may have read lots of commentary on this. I was traveling to Indiana when the whole mess broke, or I would have posted something sooner here. I'm writing this now, in the dead of night while chilling at my mother-in-law's Indiana home, because I just want to get these ideas out somewhere.

I don't think Jesse made his statement on purpose. It was too embarassing to him personally, and it played into a strategy conservative race-baiters such as Bill O'Reilly have been trying to leverage for months -- ginning up a rift between Obama and established civil rights leaders.

What Jackson's comments do reveal -- besides his ongoing inability to govern his mouth -- is his inability to find a place for himself and similarly old school black leaders in Obama's movement.

Obama doesn't need him to get black votes -- black people are ready to vote for a black man who has a realistic shot at winning the White House, regardless of whether Jesse, Al or Julian Bond like him. Still, these leaders can't look like they're hindering his campaign, or they may lose their constituency (not exactly a resume-builder for a black civil rights leader to hamper efforts by anyone to become the first black president).

Just like Ralph Nader before him, Jesse isn't sure how to relate to a black candidate who doesn't talk about traditional black issues in traditional ways -- particularly when they don't need his help to reach black people. I wrote about this last year in my piece about race identity and Obama; many of those who support Obama primarily because of his race may be disappointed when he gets elected and doesn't advocate for minority issues in the ways candidates of color traditionally have.

"If you have something, then everyone will want a piece of it," Obama's aunt tells him in the book. "So you have to draw the line somewhere."

The question many civil rights leaders have now is, where is Obama drawing the line with them? And if they're stuck on the outside when he gets elected president, what does that mean for them -- and the struggle to free black folks from oppression?

Right now, I'd bet next week's pay that Jesse isn't going to like the answer to either of those questions when they finally come. At least then he'll have a good reason for making comments about cutting off pieces of Obama's anatomy.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:49pm]


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