WASHINGTON — In the full arc of the 2008 presidential election, the Rev. Jesse Jackson's threat to trim Barack Obama's, um, sails for "talking down to black people" will probably be nothing more than a blip in the hungry cable news cycle.
But Jackson's flash of frustration provided a glimpse of a simmering debate among prominent African-Americans over what Obama is saying as he campaigns for president, and what he isn't saying.
This week, Jackson appeared on a Fox News panel and was heard whispering to a fellow-panelist: "See, Barack's been talking down to black people on this faith-based. I wanna cut his (testicles) off." It was made in context of Obama's call for more personal responsibility and support for faith-based programs — political buzz words frequently used by Republicans that, to many in the African-American community, suggest government turning its back on poor blacks.
Jackson promptly apologized and Obama accepted, but the dustup comes as some black critics complain Obama has shied from specifically addressing problems facing black Americans.
"The faith-based programs were not widely liked in the black community. … That was the immediate cause" of the Jackson controversy, said Ron Walters, an expert in African-American politics and culture at the University of Maryland. "But the deeper cause has to do with the underground grumbling in a lot of quarters that Barack Obama has not given an agenda that the black community can feel comfortable with."
Walters said they have been forced to take it on faith that he'll be good for African-Americans — something black voters have done with white politicians for years.
A new generation
No one interviewed said the issue is likely to dampen the enthusiasm black voters showed for Obama during the Democratic primary, and several downplayed Jackson's influence and questioned his motives. Jackson's own son, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, denounced his father's remarks as "ugly.''
Said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement: "I think his comments were unfortunate, and he does not speak for the great majority of African-Americans."
Ange-Marie Hancock, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, said Jackson's whispers were a small indication of the changing of the guard in black America. She put Obama in the same category as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty; and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker — relatively young black leaders who are challenging the black establishment's reliance on government to help black constituents.
Old-guard leaders "don't have faith that the private sector will live up to what Obama is calling for, because they didn't experience it in the 40 years prior," said Hancock, who is 38.
"But Obama did experience it — going to Columbia, going to Harvard, working in a law firm. … And certainly his wife (a health care executive) lived it in the private sector. He has more faith in the private sector than some of these old guard leaders may have."
Obama has taken great pains to avoid being defined by his race, or to be perceived as the African-American candidate. To focus on so-called black issues would undermine that and only help his Republican opponent, John McCain, several black leaders said.
"Barack Obama is not running for the president of Black American. He's running for president of the United States of America," said Curtis Stokes, a Tampa banker and president of the Hillsborough County Branch of the NAACP.
"Until we as African-Americans come to the realization that this is 2008 and we can't characterize ourselves as a special interest, and characterize us as Americans, we will never get to the next level."
Many prominent African-American leaders were late joining the Obama campaign, having pledged early support to Hillary Rodham Clinton. An important exception was Joseph Lowery of Atlanta, the president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said he saw in Obama a politician who could transcend race.
Obama was near Lowery's back yard Tuesday for a rally at a high school in Powder Springs, Ga., in predominately white Cobb County.
"Most black folk didn't know where the high school was. I didn't," Lowery said. "Some black folk said, 'Why isn't he in the black community?' I said to them, 'Clear your mind, son, he's trying to get elected. He's trying to make Georgia a battleground. You can't do that by preaching to the choir.'"
Times staff writer Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.