In Part 3 we investigate further Barack Obama’s clashes with Reverend Jesse Jackson on how to address the black community, and to what extent the black community views Obama as one of their own.
The Rumble in the Jungle
Unlike the Barack Obama of today who seemingly distances himself from those who use race as a way of establishing your credentials as part of the black community, siding with people because of what their race represented is something the young Obama was actually quite familiar with. In Dreams from my Father, Obama talks of his friend Ray who was a couple of years older than him in his senior year who he befriended because “in no small part…that together we made up almost half of Punahou’s black high school population.”
When coupled with the sentiment at the end of the previous section about Obama’s present day attitudes that the lop-sided social status in America is financial one and not racial one, thus distancing himself from Jackson and Sharpton, this quote from Dreams indicates that he hasn’t always felt this way. In fact, it could be understood that when the young, circa-16-year-old Obama needed to feel like a part of something due to the risk of potential alienation because of his race, he was drawn to Ray, who was of similar colour.
As was previously discussed, the Obama of today seems to have no such need to side with other blacks to feel part of the group: part of something bigger: to belong. In Audacity of Hope, he happily sets himself aside from the pack that he seemingly desperately needed to get by when he was younger.
The distance between Obama and the echelons of the civil rights movement isn’t just a one way street. In fact, quite the opposite is also true – that they have distanced themselves from him.
The aforementioned Reverend Jesse Jackson, who both applauded and cried when Obama became President Elect on November 4, 2008, has not always been a staunch Obama supporter. In fact, Jackson has come out and directly criticised Barack Obama on numerous occasions. The most prevalent being as late as July this year  when he was caught saying that he wanted to “cut his nuts out” as he felt Obama “was talking down to black people” when, in a speech on Father’s Day in Chicago on June 15, he told them to take responsibility for their own lives. “The change we need is not just going to come from government,” said Obama to an already enthusiastic and overexcited crowd, “it’s not just going to come from a President, it’s gonna come from us. It’s gonna come from each and every one of us.” The crowd rose to their feet in rapturous applause.
You can see the speech in its entirety below:
However, Jackson took issue with these comments and thought Obama was being patronising. His subsequent remarks were not part of any public outcry but he was caught saying it off camera by a Fox News reporter. Jackson has since apologised for his comments describing them as “crude” and that “he felt no joy” in his remarks. “This is a sound bite in a broader conversation about urban policy and racial disparities,” said Jackson. “I said he comes down as speaking down to black people. The moral message must be a much broader message. What we need really is racial justice and urban policy and jobs and health care. That’s a range of issues on the menu. Then I said something I regret was crude. It was very private.” He added. “So I immediately called the senator’s campaign to send my statement of apology to repair the harm or hurt that this may have caused his campaign, because I support it unequivocally.”
We cannot overlook the fact that the day after Jackson’s apology was printed in The Times, The Washington Post reported that polls indicted Obama had extended his lead over rival Senator John McCain by eight points, which is some margin.
Andrew Hacker, author of Two Nations, Black & White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal and Robert J. and Marion E. Oster, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Shelby Steele, author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and why He Can’t Win might attribute this spike in approval ratings to the fact that Obama isn’t part of the angry black man brigade. In the chapter “Crossover Politicians,” Hacker alludes to the fact that whites become scared when faced with an aggressive black politician talking of racial injustice, they begin to fear that when or if they come into power, that whites will be punished by them as they once punished blacks. Shelby Steele would label Jesse Jackson as a Challenger. Challengers “presume whites to be guilty of racism” and “put all whites in the position of having to chase after their racial innocence.” So distancing himself from Jackson seems to have broadened his appeal across the board. The issue of the Crossover Politician and the role of the Challenger are discussed at length in the passage, “The Crossover Politician” in a later edition of this article.
This is not the first time Jackson had issued a broadside at Obama, however. Back in September 2007 Jackson criticised Obama for “acting like he’s white.” Tellingly, in his Father’s Day Speech, Obama says:
“It’s interesting during this process of running for President that, er, you remember at the beginning, er, people were wondering “How come he doesn’t have all the support of the African American community? Do you remember that?” he said, smiling wryly. “That was when I wasn’t black enough, now I’m too black, but…”
Jackson, again, retracted his comments again by saying: “There’s an unfortunate misinterpretation,” Jackson said. “The fact is, I endorse Barack without hesitation and support him today unequivocally.”
University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, Michael Eric Dyson, writes in April 4 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How it Changed America, “Before he rose to fame, there was little doubt Obama was black [but] when white folk like a black person too much, there’s usually something wrong with them.” Dyson goes on to say that the “black folk claiming that he’s not black the way they want him to be black – that he wasn’t born of an American black father and mother – …miss the irony of claiming that a black man born of immediate African ancestry doesn’t measure up to their test of blackness.” He says however, that they do have every right to be suspicious of him. They need to know if their needs and issues will be represented by him.
We can now see that the issue of Obama’s blackness – to what degree he is or isn’t – is still something that is debated even today by the black community themselves. On 7th December 2008, Reuters declared in a report made by Danish television station “Danmark’s Radio” – Denmark’s state-funded national television station – that they were going to refer to him as “coloured” (farvede in Danish). In fact, the whole News at 9 report focused on what he should be referred to given the fact that he wasn’t completely black, yet not white either; an issue that has in fact troubled Barack since his youth as will be revealed in Part 4.