The Jesse Jackson Gaffe in Context

Jesse Jackson stepped in it again this week by criticizing Barack Obama during what he thought was a private conversation. He was a guest on a Fox News political program and was talking with another Black guest when he was off the air. However, his microphone was still on and the remarks were caught on tape. Jackson was complaining about Obama's support for faith-based initiatives and accused him of "talking down to Black people." In an unfortunate moment of bravado, he then told the other guest that he "wanted to cut Obama's nuts off." Jackson has since apologized for his "crude remarks," but the damage had already been done, and not to Barack Obama. This story proved to be a bit too sensitive for male journalists to cover, as this humorous compilation reveals. (Hat tip: TV Newser)

What is happening regarding Black leaders of yesteryear like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is nothing new, but the media have been slow to catch on. I first mentioned how Barack Obama represented a changing of the guard more than a year ago in regards to Al Sharpton:

What does Sharpton do when his role within the Black political community and the Black community in general is diminished? What does Sharpton do when he does not have to be kowtowed to in order to deliver the crucial Black vote for Democratic candidates? What does Sharpton do when he has such a long history of civil rights activism and is treated like a gadfly only to watch a first term senator come out of nowhere and be so unbelievably well received?

What does any animal do when it feels threatened? It lashes out. And that's why Sharpton is worried.
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are the media-anointed spokesmen for the Black community. However, many Blacks don't believe Jackson and Sharpton speak for them. Blacks are not a monolithic voting bloc at all. They overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, but often have conservative values. These values include self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Jackson and Sharpton run contrary to this philosophy. While the history and effects of institutionalized racism and discrimination in America can never be forgotten, a growing number of Blacks are tired of simply blaming White injustices for the ills in their communities. Citing racism as the reason why you dropped out of school, discrimination as the reason why your child is a drug addict, and the lack of reparations as the reason why your neighborhood is riddled with gang violence doesn't hold water. Blacks want to improve their communities and realize that even though they don't have control over government policy (except at the ballot box), they do have control over themselves.

Many Blacks, including national figures such as Colin Powell and Bill Cosby, have spoken out about the need for Black men to be more involved in their children's lives and for Black children to stay in school. These people have been criticized by the Jackson wing of the Black community for "acting White" or having "a lack of pride in their Blackness," but this resistance is getting weaker and weaker. Even though it may be a tough message for some people to hear, it is a message of truth that cannot be disputed. Barack Obama is only the latest leader to remind Blacks that there comes a time when you simply have to stop blaming others for the mistakes you make.

The political consequences of Jackson's remarks are obvious. Obama benefits anytime he is criticized by people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Jackson and Sharpton are seen by many Whites and Republicans as radical Black leftists. Falling out of favor with them makes Obama look reasonable by comparison and works against the caricature of him as an angry race-baiting liberal closet Black Muslim. By extension, that helps put more distance between him and the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright, thus further increasing his appeal among Whites. It also makes Obama look more moderate because Jackson is seen as one of the figureheads of the liberal fringe. Jackson's complaints do not reveal any real danger on Obama's left flank because these Black voters are going to vote for him in November anyway.

Jackson's stature within the Black community is diminished. He did nothing to help his cause with his macho talk during what he thought was a private moment. Blacks who have grown tired of the same old arguments are only going to be more drawn to Obama's message of taking responsibility rather than simply complaining about still not receiving their forty acres and a mule. Older Blacks may be more receptive to Jackson's message, but there is a growing generation gap that consists of younger Blacks whose lives were not shaped by the civil rights movement and desegregation and older Blacks who still remember what it was like to have to drink from "colored-only" water fountains and endure blatant racism as they walked down the street. Racism obviously still exists and is a serious problem, but this new generation of Blacks, starting with Obama's generation, is less inclined to buy into the traditional arguments about race relations that have been debated for decades without arriving at a meaningful consensus.

Obama's candidacy has advantaged this nation by forcing people of all races to reassess race. He is forcing people not just to merely consider the prevalence or perpetrators of racism in today's society, but also how we can discuss it intelligently and arrive at new solutions. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don't offer any of this, and that is why their relevancy is restricted to journalists who are too lazy to search for new Black voices who offer new messages and new ideas.

12 comment(s):

Dominic said...

I found it ironic that Jessie Jackson is criticizing Obama for essentially saying that the time of Dead-Beat-Dads is over.

Obama, this time, didn't say anything damning at all. He was saying that the family structure is falling apart and we need to, as you've already said, Mr. Palmer, need to take responsibility for our own mistakes and stop blaming the whole of societal ills on some sort of quasi-government boogeyman.

Again, this is the problem with our 24 hour cable news cycle. With air-time to kill, they bring on the same talking-heads to say the same thing, over-and-over and over and over...There's a number of factors that can't be ignored for this particular incident, however. Being that this happened while on Fox News, it begs the question, "Was his mic purposely left on?" It is Fox after all. Many in the field of respectable journalism often refer to this new type of Yellow Journalism as "Foxing" (or "Fauxing") the news.

Now, if Jessie Jackson was saying, "I'd like to cut his nuts off for flipping on FISA," I believe you'd see a hell of a lot of people coming out of the internet wood-work to hold hands and scissors with Jackson.

Johnny said...

I stumbled upon your blog while surfing the website of College Scholarship.org. You made some very interesting comments regarding Jesse Jackson, Sr. (minus the Rev. Tag).

Having been born during the tail-end of the Civil Rights movement and a few years before the dawn of the Gen-Xer’s, you might say I am stuck in the middle.

In any case, while I certainly understand the affects of racial discrimination; I have come to understand that you cannot blame racism for everything. If people do not take responsibility for their own actions, then who will? Everything is not always someone else’s fault.

I do agree with you that Obama in some cases represents a new breed of Black politician. However, I am not completely sold on the notion that Jackson and Sharpton are dinosaurs who must face an impending “Ice Age”.

These men (Jackson and Sharpton) do have a place in our current political arena. I still believe that while Jesse Jackson has sometimes been seen as an opportunist; He has been a champion for the down-and-out for many years. Let’s face it, very few people are willing to take up the cause of the little man.

But you do make some valid points and I love the way you have chosen to view and comment on the situation.

Let’s stay in Touch!


Freadom said...

Lazy Journalism. I love that phrase. And I certainly hope Sharpton and Jackson don't go away, because they make for good entertainment. I actually enjoy listening to them.

Nikki has a neat cartoon about this posted on her blog. If you haven't already, you should check it out.

Freadom said...

Dominic: Katie Couric was caught off camera recently making goofy comments on her own channel CBS. Does fox really do this more often than other channels. It's possible, but I'd like to see the statistics.

DB said...

I would like to think that the taped conversation was not purposely done, but cable news have become monsters in the race to get the news first and at all costs (not just Fox either). While I would initially lay the blame on poor journalism ethics, I am waiting to see how soon Jackson gets back in front of a Fox camera. If he gets back in after being sold out like this, then his values are nothing more than theirs and he truly is just a publicity whore.

If he truly cared for his cause he would make his constant publicity more about his cause then about himself. We only hear about "Jesse Jackson" and we never hear about what he does for blacks. We see him on the news and just see a biter man angry about race. We don't ever see the people he helps (I assume he does help people, though I never hear about it).

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

contyext would be disposition in one word

Mark in Austin said...

Enjoyed Anthony's take and the comments, and only want to add that JJ Jr.'s response to his dad was VERY LOUD. Is JJ Jr. going to run for BHO's Senate seat if BHO wins the presidency?

S.W. Anderson said...

Right on, about Jackson feeling threatened and on his way to becoming an anachronism. Before casting off on Obama, he'd do well to reflect on his own misadventure with marital infidelity that came to light two or three years ago. Not much of a role model for young people, black or whatever, in that.

Whereas, so far as we know, Obama has been a faithful husband and devoted father. I trust if there was a bimbo eruption to be publicized, the GOP smear squad would have jumped on it by now.

I clearly recall that Jackson himself has spoken out about the need for black men to be responsible husbands and fathers, and to spare another generation the poisoned values and self-defeat that comes from acquiring "education" out on the street and in jail, instead of in school; and of giving first loyalty not to family but to fellow gang members.

Even beyond looking bad for having made a mean-mouthed, uncalled for comment about Obama, Jackson needs to think about how bad hypocrisy looks on him.

A final thought about AP's remarks about African Americans growing tired of the old-model approach of the civil-rights-era leaders, and a desire for self-reliance, etc.

All the ills of broken families, lack of respect for the institution of marriage and for personal and family responsibilities are true of a disturbingly large segment on the nonblack population as well.

Whites, Latinos and others might not be able to point to gross racism as a root cause of their ills, but some of them surely would be justified in saying the stigma of poverty has more than a little to do with how they came to be the way they are.

Government can help create opportunities and open the door to those opportunities. Government can help ensure fairness in a fairly broad range of things.

What government can't do is yank a young punk wannabe off the corner, drag him home and sit him down with a book. Can't make him say a prayer at bedtime, speak respectfully to parents and other grownups and stay in school when he's 16. Government can't instill self-discipline and pride in who he is and what he's about. Government can't make him determined to work for a living and proud of providing his family their home, food and other essentials. For those things, family, church, friends and neighbors are the only real hope.

I have no trouble as a liberal in acknowledging these things, which at basis aren't political or ideological at all. They're a matter of common sense.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think Jackson is simply unhappy with his perceived stranglehold on Black opinion slowly slipping away. It's a shame too because he has been a good champion of civil rights. And without his struggles and courage, my life probably wouldn't be as good as it is today. It's too bad, really, because more people are beginning to remember his legacy in terms of outbursts like these instead of his actual sacrifices for equal rights.



Thanks for the comment. I think times have changed and enough progress has been made for the same old messages that Jackson and Sharpton advocate to have diminished resonance. That's what makes them come across like relics. But because nobody (until a few years ago) has really competed with them for influence within the Black community, they don't know how to handle these new voices. Please come back again and join the discussion sometime.



I agree in that I don't know if there's an actual conspiracy involving Fox News. However, Fox does strike me as the least professional of the three cable news stations. The "terrorist fist jab" and lack of action on the photoshopping snafu are two of the latest examples of this. But Fox's business strategy is quite successful, as there are a lot of people who want their news with a conservative tinge. The "fair and balanced" part of it, however, is debatable.



I'd like to know what the rest of the tape says. Bill O'Reilly was saying that the part of the tape they didn't air was far more damaging than the "nuts" comment. Seems like he's hyping this up a bit more. There's little point in continuing to talk about it if they're not going to release it, don't you think?



He's obsolete in the minds of many people, Black and White alike. But the media still think of him as a heavyweight for some reason. Actually, I think the reason is simply laziness and being content with the formula that works.



I will get to your comments next!

Thomas said...

I never really bought the "I didn't know the microphone was on argument." Wouldn't anybody be more candid (and thus more in line with what they really think) when a microphone isn't jabbed in front of their face, Anthony?

Thomas said...

I also think Chris Rock has, in a very humorous way, pointed out that some black fathers really fall down on the job.

Anthony Palmer said...


One popular definition of "gaffe" that I've heard is an instance in which a politician tells the truth. Jackson is irked by being eclipsed, much like Hillary Clinton is irked.

Having said all that, I don't wonder so much about why the mikes were left on. Politicians should know that any mike is potentially a live mike. So Jackson should have been a bit more disciplined and kept his comments to himself or for the men's restroom or something (though that might not have gone over so well, given his remarks). But I do wonder why the video tape was released. To what end?



You think Jesse Jackson Jr. could potentially fill Obama's seat if he wins the election? Wow! From what I've heard of JJ Jr, he seems to be a hybrid of his father and Obama. He's not a traditional civil rights era politician, but he does advocate civil rights from a more modern/progressive point of view. So he could be a fresh voice, even though he suffers from "Jeb Bush Syndrome" in that his name may instantly turn some people off.



Excellent comment. And perhaps the most important part of it was your next to last paragraph. There are limits to what government, businesses, and communities can do. Sometimes it's really up to the individual to make responsible choices and improve their lot in life. Scapegoating just keeps the cycle going. And I think a lot of people who are sick of the scapegoating are unfairly branded as racists for not empathizing with the high school dropout with three kids working at KFC.

For you and anyone else who may be reading this, I highly recommend Chris Rock's "Black People vs. Niggas" standup routine. Very funny, but also very true. And it exposes something that not a lot of people have the courage to say out loud.

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