And we all better listen carefully

Published 11:38 am Monday, September 15, 2008

Jesse Jackson charged in July that Barack Obama “talks down” to Blacks. In fact, Obama talks straight to them, and Jackson shames himself by envious refusal to acknowledge this. Barack Obama sustains a strong sense of responsibility for fellow Blacks, and this keen sense motivates him to challenging them from inside — to become responsible for themselves by capitalizing on the abundant opportunities to lift themselves from victimhood to achievement.

I won’t bother going into Jackson’s language and style — in all its blatant unkindness, egregious insensitivity and gross obscenity — because this has been adequately addressed in the news coverage. The content of his remarks and Jackson’s attitude require more comment than they have received. I think the best way to accomplish this is to ignore Jackson and focus on Barack Obama.

More from what I have read in Obama’s pre-political writings than from campaign speeches, releases and advertising, I have gained profound respect for his concern for Blacks and insight into their conditions. The principal source, of course, is his Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). This is a memoir from childhood until leaving social work in Chicago to enroll in Harvard Law School.

Email newsletter signup

Obama, of course, is half-Black, if there is such a thing. The genealogical fact is that his mother was a white American and his father a black Kenyan. His father abandoned mother and son while they lived in Hawaii, and the boy was but 2 years old. He had a few weeks’ contact with him at age 10, and it was entirely bad. Hawaii was then, as now, one of the states, but not in the cultural sense that others are. He moved to Indonesia when his mother remarried an Indonesian who became his stepfather. This, too, was brief and not especially formative. Although he sincerely credits his mother with teaching him basic values, he was essentially raised by her White parents.

Obama attended Occidental College in California for two years and completed his undergraduate work at Columbia University in New York City. Having become editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, he gained opportunities to join a lucrative Wall Street law firm.

At almost any point in his life, he could have chosen to present himself as White. For any person as black as he, this would be difficult. But Obama’s native intelligence, cosmopolitan cultural exposure and industrious drive just might have allowed him to pull it off. Whether he would have been successful, he chose not even to try but, rather, to cast his lot with the Blacks.

He left his White opportunities and potential professional status behind and moved to Chicago. After all these years, this became his introduction to grassroots American life—or, at least, the asphalt jungle part of it. He went to work as a social activist and organizer on the city’s south side. From my days of teaching in a Chicago college and moving around his neighborhoods, I am familiar with what was his socio-economic battleground. Believe me, it was this.

Initially, Obama had great difficulty understanding why and how the Blacks with whom he worked accepted their economic poverty and social deprivations. It took him a while to recognize how relatively privileged he had been, and that he was essentially reared as a White boy. He was, in fact, “not one of us.” Yet, very much to his credit, he succeeded in becoming one of them. He was blessed with some wise counsel from several Black ministers, but the most important lessons he learned came the hard way of hard knocks.

As compassionate as he was for the welfare of Blacks, they regularly disappointed and even failed him. Some actually betrayed his kindness and sacrifices. He sat in a barber shop and listened to totally illogical complaints about Whites and irrational excuses by Blacks. They complained about how Chicago officials used office to benefit themselves and their friends, and then they did the same thing as soon as they had the opportunity.

He came to recognize that Blacks, at least those he experienced, are their own worst enemies. They are discriminated against terribly, to be sure, but there is no harder discrimination than that of Blacks who gain the upper hand. Just as Whites had excluded Blacks, when Blacks got in the same position, they excluded not only Whites, but Blacks not as black as they.

It does not need to be this way, this Black concluded, and it must not be so. This must not be tolerated, and wiser Blacks bear the burden of saying so and doing something about it.

This, Jesse Jackson, is what Barack Obama is doing. He does not talk down to other Blacks: He talks straight with him. And we had better all listen carefully.