Thursday, July 10, 2008
Dr Boyce Watkins: Jesse Jackson v Barack Obama, Black Leadership
Dr. Boyce Watkins
I spoke last night with someone from Jesse Jackson's camp, and I wanted to share some quick thoughts on the unfortunate comments made by Rev. Jackson about Senator Barack Obama. I should start by saying that I support Senator Obama's candidacy for the White House, and I also firmly believe that he has the right to keep his testicles (just a joke, I can’t help it). I should also note that I love and respect the Jackson family, especially Rev. Jackson's daughter Santita, from whom I have received a great deal of support.
Quick thoughts on Rev. Jackson's comments, made in response to Senator Obama’s statements in black churches, particularly about the African American male:
1) Whether we agree with Rev. Jackson's sentiments about Senator Obama or not, I consider this to be a wonderful opportunity to begin a powerful national discussion regarding what it means to strengthen our community (please feel free to comment on my blog if you have something to say). How do we draw the line between constructive criticism and destructive stereotyping? Every community has flaws, so the idea that black men are somehow less moral, less productive or have less compassion for their loved ones than other ethnic groups is not only problematic, but it feeds directly into historical stereotypes of the black male (remember the comments about black men “going AWOL”, “being boys instead of men” or “denying their responsibility”?).
Remember: the way the Nazis justified their extermination of the Jews was by using media and propaganda to convince the public that Jews were less than human, less able to love, and less worthy of compassion than other ethnic groups. The same thing is being done to the black male in America, as it is not a coincidence that the same group being disdained and dehumanized by our society JUST HAPPENS to be the group most likely to be incarcerated and most likely to be defined by our public schools as having behavioral disorders. Also, have you ever noticed that the most hated athlete in America is almost always a black man? (Barry Bonds, Ron Artest, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, Latrell Sprewell, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali……) – What do they always say about these guys (even the ones who never committed a crime)? That they have poor character. That is what many of my colleagues at Syracuse say about ME. This problem reaches all of us.
2) I do not feel that Rev. Jackson's comments were made out of jealousy. If he didn't like Senator Obama, he would not have endorsed him. If he were truly working to undermine Senator Obama's campaign, he would have made his comments publicly (using different words, of course). Instead, he has been disciplined, as we all have, in keeping his disagreements to himself. Leaders are going to disagree, and disagreement doesn't make you into a "hater".
3) While we are quick to attack and condemn the black male, we must remember that all groups have flaws, and if I shine a spotlight hard enough on any ethnic group, I can find poor behavior. It seems as though we have collectively decided that one group’s flaws are ok to spotlight, while those of other groups are off the table for discussion. It’s sort of like saying “You’re a bad person because your feet stink, but you can’t talk about the smell of my feet.” I never understood why the black male has been deemed to have sole responsibility for the breakdown of black families. Aren’t there women in these relationships too? Don’t the majority of white men divorce their wives and leave the home as well? It’s not to condone any of these behaviors, but it implies that we all have our hands dirty in this, not just black men.
It is also easy to be confused into believing that if black men would simply choose to behave, the media would have nothing to stereotype. Beyond the impossible task of getting 18 million well-behaved people walking in lockstep, the reality is that if the media or anyone else wants to see the negative in you, they are always going to find it. They will always be able to find another Flavor Flav to put on TV. They will always be able to find another 50 Cent, Lil Wayne or prison inmate to glamorize. You see, the easiest thing for an abused person or group to believe is that if they would just stop being so pathetic, then the abuse will stop. But if someone hates you, they will always find something to hate. When black men demand that our government create policies that open up more job opportunities, they are chastised for being pathetic and asking for a handout. When we endorse the idea of supporting black businesses and working together, we are accused of being separatist or hating white people. America has been trained for 400 years to hate black people and we have been trained to hate ourselves. There will always be something to hate, no matter how much our behavior changes.
Anyone tempted to justify Senator Obama’s statements by saying “Well, he was telling the truth!” should also realize that Jeremiah Wright spoke 40 years of truth in his fight for racial equality, but his truth was shut down by Senator Obama and others. Truth should not know racial boundaries. If Obama can “tell it like it is” with black men, I encourage him and others to “tell it like it is” with other ethnic groups as well. If he can’t do that, we have to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen to relegate ourselves to this form of second-class citizenship. Is it OK to tell us that we are bad people for doing the same thing that other people do? That is a textbook version of racial oppression, white supremacy and nasty double standards. Obama is not a Black Presidential candidate, he is an AMERICAN presidential candidate. What he says to black men should be allowed in every other venue. I hear those who say that there is a time and place for everything (we are in the middle of an election, after all), so if Obama wishes for black leaders to remain quiet on racial inequality, then perhaps Obama can remain quiet on racial degradation (which requires us to defend ourselves). It can’t be one over the other.
4) Black love is a critical element of any dialogue that takes place about our community. Have you ever heard someone say “We’re so messed up”, “Black men are trifling”, or “What’s wrong with our kids?” Such comments, whether we realize it or not, are subconsciously degrading, demoralizing and encouraging of the wrong behavior. I will never motivate my daughter to behave by saying that she is nothing but a dirty little SOB. When we see one black person doing something silly, we somehow feel the need to extrapolate that individual’s actions to imply that all of us are flawed (i.e. “I am embarrassed by Flavor Flav”, or “Did you see the youtube video of the girl cussing out the old lady on the subway? What’s wrong with our kids?”). However, I have never seen a white man look at a group of white kids and say “White people, our community is just so messed up”, or “I was so embarrassed by the guys on the MTV show, Jackass. They make white men look so bad.”
Such nasty, negative self-judgments not only erode your self-esteem, but they serve as justifications for racism against the black community. These statements make the argument that: “The black community is torn to shreds and black people are poor and jobless because they don’t have good morals, they make terrible decisions and they just choose to be bad people.” I am a believer that positive reinforcement is a better way to change behavior. Rather than saying that “Black men should stop being little boys instead of men”, perhaps Obama could have said “Look at the fine men on this stage we are celebrating on Father’s Day. This represents the best of black men and what we can all become if we just try our best.”
Again, I support Senator Obama and I feel no need to make disparaging remarks about him as he runs for the White House. But I make no apologies for the fact that I also support Rev. Jackson. Both of these men deserve our support and respect, and both of them must be challenged to earn it. Truth be told, Reverend Jackson has spent 40 years working toward Dr. King’s dream, whether we agree with him or not. I would take a moment of pause before we express a willingness to trade in 40 years of Black leadership for a president with a Black face. If he is going to be everyone’s president and not just the Black president, this implies that his ability and desire to get in the trenches and fight for the next Sean Bell, Jena Six or Hurricane Katrina might be limited.
Keep backing Obama, but make sure you keep your mind open in the process. Don’t let him, or anyone else, take your vote for granted.
Dr. Boyce Watkins
No, I was not paid to send this message. I have no corporate sponsors. I am not rewarded by Jesse, Al, Barack or anyone else to say what I say. I never plan to run for political office, and I don’t care a whole lot about what people think about me. I am just being honest in my assessments. Black people should be independent and liberated. I’m not interested in being a slave.