Monday, June 9, 2008

A thought on race

Via Andrew Sullivan, a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled, Message to the White Man: We're not thinking about you:
One of the most poisonous ideas to emerge out of the cultural wars of the 80s and 90s was this portrait of black America as a hotbed of radical leftists who spend their days berating Jews, demanding reparations, and thinking of new and exciting ways to make white folks feel guilty. I think that image has come to dominate because so many public intellectuals working in the arena of race began to confuse the debates occurring in the sociology departments of elite campuses and in the salons of the Upper West Side, with the debates that rank and file black folks have amongst themselves. No disrespect, but New York City and the Ivy Leagues may be the most distortive influences on the picture of black life, short of BET.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an African-American writer who really hadn't figured on my radar much until the past few weeks when he guest blogged at Political Animal. Some pretty interesting stuff, and I'm going to follow him for a while and see what he has to say.

The quote above is from a longer piece about Obama and racial identity and the real attitudes of black people; it's almost too full of ideas. So let me just talk about the quote, because I think Coates misses one thing, one vital person who did a lot to frame that debate - Jesse Jackson. (He does mention Al Sharpton, and has written perceptive articles in the past about the reverend's irrelevance. But I don't think Sharpton has had the same effect over the long haul across the entire nation as Jackson.)

Jackson has been the voice, at least in the media, of the African-American community (to the point where he is credited as the person who popularized the adoption of the term "African-American" over "black"). One can make the argument that no one person should be given that responsibility, to speak for a large and diverse group, but that's what happened, and it certainly wasn't a title that Jackson eschewed.

And every one of the items that Coates discusses, the berating of Jews ("Hymietown"), reparations, white guilt, each of these was a major component of the Jesse Jackson strategy for keeping himself in the limelight. It is very hard to argue that Jackson was simply the product of "New York City and the Ivy Leagues," especially when he spent so much time presenting himself as the man of the people, the heir to Martin Luther King.

Was the media too quick to anoint Jackson as their go-to guy concerning any and all black issues? Probably. Did Jackson truly represent the views of black America, if there is any such thing? Probably not. But you cannot legitimately discuss the white America attitude toward black America over the last 30 or so years without mentioning the role of Jesse Jackson.

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