Jesse, Obama and the Politics of Race Part I

by Dax-Devlon Ross

“So, who do you think’s going to get the nod?”

“I like Edwards but I don’t know if he can win it all. He’s missing something.”

“What about Hillary?”

“She rubs me the wrong the way. There’s something about her I just don’t like.” 

A week ago yesterday I overheard this conversation. It was between two middle-aged white men. The three of us were the only customers in a Manhattan coffee shop I sometimes frequent after work. Even though I was seated directly between them and they therefore had to talk over me, neither of them asked my opinion. Certainly I could’ve interjected, offered my two cents, but I didn’t.. Their frankness, their nonchalance, attracted me more than anything they actually said. I mean, how could these two seemingly intelligent men seriously engage in a conversation about the presidential election without even mentioning the man standing directly between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards? How could they so blatantly and unabashedly disregard a man who’s raised more money than both of these candidates? I was honestly fascinated. By simply not mentioning Barack Obama’s candidacy they indicated so much more about what still plagues our country than anything they could’ve actually uttered. Given the fact that, to date, Obama has raised more than $50 million dollars ($10 million more than Hillary and oodles more than any other candidate from either party) from more than 150,000 donors, and that he and Clinton are running neck and neck in Edwards’s home state of South Carolina, how on earth could these men honestly believe that Edwards has a better shot at winning – at this point at least – than Obama?  And yet they did. As casually as they’d overlooked me sitting between them, they were even more casual in their dismissal of Obama’s candidacy.

The conversation stayed with me on my walk across town. Eventually it led me back to 1988; back to when I was barely a teenager and could hardly understand the inner-workings of a presidential election, which isn’t to say that I do now. But even in ’88 I understood what Jesse Jackson’s candidacy meant. I knew that of all the candidates he was the one promising to heal everyday Americans after eight grueling years beneath the starry-eyed smirk of a questionably competent President Reagan. I knew that he was inspiring hope in the hopeless of all races and that his message was cutting through ethnic and class schisms as no other candidate since Robert Kennedy had. I knew that wherever Jesse went, whether it was to a Baptist church in Georgia, a Methodist church in Iowa,  an autoworkers union meeting in Michigan, farmers union meeting in Montana, an oil workers union meeting in Texas, people, white, black, brown, yellow, were coming out to support him by the thousands. They were professing their love, their support, and their dollars for a black candidate who had never held public office. Jesse was stirring an undeniable spirit, an audacious Will to Hope that, frankly, makes Obama’s seem rather tame despite his deep pockets, broad “appeal” and the support of a media attention. The facts of the ‘88 Jackson campaign bear noting here. In Iowa and New Hampshire Jesse pulled in roughly 10% of the vote. In Maine and Vermont, 30%. Minnesota, 20%. These are not simply majority white states, these are whites states that had a few black people sprinkled here and there. On Super Tuesday Jackson finished first or second in sixteen of the twenty-one primaries and caucuses. He won five southern states and finished second in nine others. By the end of the day Jackson had more popular votes than any other candidate.  By the end of his campaign he had collected 1,200 delegates – twice his expected haul – and more votes than any other second place finisher in the history of the Democratic Party, all with a fraction of a fraction of the budget Obama has been able to amass.

Now, obviously I didn’t remember all of these particulars as I was walking from the East Village to the West. But what I did remember was a conversation I had with a classmate’s father the morning of the ’88 Democratic primary in Washington, D.C. Every morning I rode to school in their ailing Honda Accord, and every morning they listened intently to WTOP while I finished my homework in the backseat. Mr. and Mrs. H were the first black and white couple I’d ever known intimately. Mrs. H wore a neat afro and long librarianesque dresses. Her voice cracked and quivered like Maya Angelou’s, a woman with whom she shared more than a passing resemblance. Mrs. H. was an eternally tolerant woman (I made them late quite frequently) with a pleasant disposition, but I instinctively knew she wore the pants in the family and wouldn’t hesitate to pull rank when necessary. Mr. H had a shaggy silvery-blond mop that he constantly wiped from his eyes when he was driving. At first I thought he just needed a haircut but then he got one and the shag still dangled over his eyes. That’s when I realized it was his look. Mr. H. was gentle, jolly. He was always smiling for no particular reason and he still walked with a kind of ‘50’s prep school buoyancy that suggested a sense of complete ease and confidence in the world. He was an endearingly oblivious character who owned a collection of brown suits and black shoes that didn’t quite fit him properly. His son, my schoolmate, didn’t suffer his father’s oafishness. He’d make fun of him, talk to him in that sarcastic, impatient way spoiled kids talk to pushover parents. Mr. H just didn’t have it in him to discipline his son. His brownness gave him immunity. He always knew that, I think. Knew his father was reluctant to discipline him because of his skin color.

WTOP had just finished a report on the Jackson campaign when I asked Mr. H if he was voting for Jesse that day. At 13 it didn’t cross my mind that what I was asking was perhaps the most sacrosanct question within the American body politic. I simply assumed that a white man married to a black woman couldn’t possibly harbor prejudice of any kind, and that since it was clear who the most compelling candidate was, in Chocolate City at least, his vote was all but a foregone conclusion anyway.

Crossing Broadway I tried to remember exactly what Mr. H said to me that morning more than a half-a-lifetime ago. I could remember the smell of burning oil inside the old Honda, and the voice of the WTOP reporter hustling through the sixty-second news update like an auction, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember exactly what Mr. H said. It was either yes or that he didn’t know yet. What I do remember was thinking I didn’t believe him. I had no reason to doubt this man but I did nonetheless. Perhaps he’d stammered or answered too quickly. Whatever it was, and no matter how much I liked and even trusted Mr. H at age of 13, I didn’t believe he was going to actually vote for Jesse Jackson. Even if he believed he was going to vote for Jesse, or that he was at least open to the possibility, I seriously doubted that any white man – even one married to a black woman – would actually go through with it. He had no reason to lie to me and I had no reason to doubt him. That wasn’t the point, though. Mr. H was a symbol of the larger doubts I was suddenly aware that I had about white America.

A recent Newsweek poll revealed that 59% of Americans feel as though the country is ready for a black president in 2008. While the poll optimistically noted that this figure was up from 37% in 2000 it in no way accounted for how that figure could be so low thirteen years after the New York Times reported Jesse Jackson polling ahead of Michael Dukakis as late as December of ’87, not to mention a mere four years after white America very nearly cajoled Colin Powell into running against Bill “America’s First Black President” Clinton. There’s a disconnect somewhere in the mix. Somehow, someway we’re still not being completely forthright as a country when it comes to race, something Senator Obama articulated when, in response to the growing sense that his victory could signal the death knell of America’s bigoted past, he said, “I just want to be very clear on this so there’s no confusion. We’re going to have a lot of work to do to overcome the long legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. It can’t be purchased on the cheap.”

A further point worth mentioning with regard to the Newsweek poll is this: simply because the majority of Americans say they are ready for a black president doesn’t mean those same Americans will actually vote for a qualified black presidential candidate or even judge him or her equally amongst the other candidates. Back in ’88 one political analyst speaking about Jackson’s campaign had this say, “constant legitimacy tests are applied to him that are just not applied to others.” In Jackson’s case it wasn’t merely his candidacy at issue but his humanity. Before he could even present himself or be presented to white voters as a viable candidate he first had to prove he was a human being and not some celluloid caricature. The upshot was that once white Americans were exposed to Jesse’s irrepressibly rare gift of gab, glamour, grit, grace and gumption in the flesh they became devoted believers. The downside was that all too many white Americans would never open their ears and eyes long enough for their souls to be touched by an intrinsically American message of hope and redemption offered by a black man.

Nearly twenty years later a distinct but kindred battery of “legitimacy tests” seem to be at the root of the skepticism surrounding Obama’s campaign. Although the two gentlemen I sat between in the coffee shop would almost certainly deny it were it brought to their attention, their unwillingness to even utter Obama’s name indicated their own unwillingness to acknowledge his existence, let alone his candidacy. For all intents and purposes Obama is an invisible entity to them. They may know his name and could probably identify him in a magazine, but they’d never “see” him as an option for president. By the same token black lawmakers and political-oriented laypersons alike, educated and upwardly mobile ones in particular, have revealed their own reticence with regard to Obama. In Clinton’s home state, New York, most of the black elected officials threw their support behind her candidacy months ago. Meanwhile it’s almost become commonplace to hear educated black folk (myself included) say they still aren’t sold on the Obama candidacy, that he still has to prove himself to them. I recently read an article in which two eighteen year-old African-American college bound young women from the Detroit area said they preferred Hillary Clinton. They both then offered sound reasons for their preference that I suspected had been supplied by their parents. Indeed, I wasn’t at all surprised when I discovered they were members of their city’s NAACP. After all, the black elite were reluctant to endorse Jackson in ’84 and only did so begrudgingly once it was apparent he was going to make a go of it with or without their support. The problem with Jesse was that he wasn’t one of their own and had, in effect, chosen himself; now the next generation of black elite (and their children) are reluctant to endorse Obama because, so goes the argument, he isn’t a product of the black American experience. It’s as if in an effort to prove their, our I should say, worthiness as full-fledged Americans that, in other words, we ain’t voting for a black man just ‘cause he’s black, black folks have elected to be more American than white folks, who, mind you, throughout the history of this nation haven’t hesitated to vote against black candidates even when they are more qualified (see the Harold Ford campaign in Tennessee for the latest example). We, black folks I’m speaking about now, hold each other to legitimacy tests that we would never think of holding white leaders to. While (some) white Americans are busy denying the legitimacy of a black president because they simply can’t envision the possibility, black folks are busy doing the same for fear of being labeled too black or, in the alternative, of being black before they are American.

In the July 16th issue of Newsweek Senator Obama is quoting as saying, “I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp: the narrative of black politics is still shaped by the ’60s and black power. That is not, I think, how most black voters are thinking. I don’t think that’s how most white voters are thinking.” While Obama is correct, perhaps even restrained, in suggesting that America is caught in a time warp, he stops short, for obvious enough reasons, of flat-out indicting America’s willful participation in the dated narrative of black politics. Obama lets us off easy, makes it seem like we’re powerless or in some way innocent, which isn’t the case. Again, looking back on the Jackson campaign in 1988 we are reminded of the Rainbow Coalition’s populist message, that Jesse went to great lengths to move beyond the politics of race (albeit without abandoning his base). But as soon as he started winning or coming so damn close he may as well have won, his opponents, adversaries and detractors started dusting off the old racial baggage. All of a sudden echoes of ’84 start reverberating through the airwaves. His relationship with Farrakhan, the “Hymietown” debacle, the hug with Arafat. All of a sudden he’s not fit for office because he’s never held public office, as if being a moral leader of black America for two decades ain’t enough.

If black politics is still shaped by a bygone era it is not a matter of happenstance. It is a matter of social inequity, economic anxiety, and a long list of august promises that have that have spent too many winters standing outside the doors of opportunity. It is a media superstructure that stuffs everything and everyone in a neat to-go box then serves it to the American public on the cheap. Whatever can’t be boxed and bagged in time for the local news gets cast aside or buried. (Remember: Cheap fried food masquerading as nourishment is easy to come by in the ‘hood, but information pretending to be news is spread all over the world free of charge.) It is a matter of the willful blindness of the two gentlemen from the coffee shop coupled with my decision to listen rather than intervene. If the 13 year-old me had no problem asking a white man if he was going to vote for a black man nearly twenty years ago, then certainly the thirty-two year-old me should have said something. I could’ve stepped out of the role of the invisible object and become real to those two men, given them an actual point of reference, perhaps even bridged the glaring gap in their vision field. I could’ve done all of that. I chose to write this instead.