The politics of race

The brou-ha-ha around Jesse Jackson's comments about Obama, and how he would like to excise a part of Obama's anatomy has been, for me, a very interesting study in the politics race. (When you watch the video, have a look at Jesse Jackson's right hand, and his face, as he makes his comments.) Of course, there is no substantive coverage of what the issues exactly are that Jesse Jackson has with Obama's ideas about reforming Bush's faith-based initiatives. The most substantial coverage is about the drama, the apologies, the repudiation ... Jim Wallis has a view of the new ideas:
Obama affirmed the idea of a faith-based initiative on the solid foundations of both real partnership and the necessary commitment of government to sound public policy to reduce poverty. Prior to today, the danger was that Democrats might revert to old secular biases and end the faith-based program altogether, preferring only public sector approaches as the remedy to poverty instead of also forging vital partnerships with civil society that include the faith community. It was good to see that the failures of the Bush faith-based initiative have not deterred Obama from proposing a robust vision of his own.
From my perspective, I don't know that I would necessarily say that it would have been a bad thing to end the faith-based program altogether - I don't know that it would be from secular bias, but more likely from a healthy appreciation of the separation of church and state, and how difficult it is to have a governmental faith-based initiative, and not run afoul of that in one way or another. On the other hand, it might well be interesting to see what Obama does with this, and whether it really has the kinds of effects he hopes it will. In terms of the politics of race - Jackson says of Obama "he's talking down to Black people on this faith based ..." What did he mean by that? Obviously, I don't know, although I could guess. Others have guessed, too. Here's a comment from Sylvester Brown:
When there are discussions about crime, drug abuse, teen-age sex, divorce or violence, they are presented as "societal problems" in the white community, even though such things permeate all parts of society. Whereas in the black community, these issues are discussed as "black problems." We know that Obama isn't talking down to us. He's talking around us. He's trying to woo white voters who want a president with the juice to tell blacks to clean up their own club.
And there was this comment from David Knowles:
Like Bill Cosby, Obama insists that not all of black America's modern-day problems can be blamed on the legacy of slavery. The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" approach is not oblivious to historical factors, but it seeks to shift the emphasis for solving problems away from government and toward the individual and the community itself. And now, thanks to Jackson, Obama gets to highlight this message to white America all the more. Just as significant, in case there was still any doubt about it, is the re-confirmation that Jesse Jackson is no longer the de facto figure-head of black America. Neither is Al Sharpton. In fact, Obama's rise may signal an end to the cult-of-personality, hierarchical pecking-order within the African American community that began (quite understandably) with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both are really interesting, and, I think, pretty right on. Jesse Jackson (and others) have lived their lives, and built their careers around a very specific kind of construction of race - one that is very much, and literally, black and white (and, to some extent, descendants of slaves and descendants of slave-owners), with few shades of grey. Obama lives in the shades of grey. And because of the changes in demographics, economics and culture of the last 30 years, that's really where we all live, too. In any event, unlike the Reverend Wright brou-ha-ha, this one can only help Obama.
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Michelle, I agree with you that the faith-based initiatives idea -- coming from someone as distrustful on the subject as Bush, or reliable as Obama -- is still wrong. I'm not knocking the effectiveness of some religious institutions in combating poverty, but the method in which these churches are funded has to be on a completely even playing ground with non-secular institutions, like Goodwill. Should the government have a strategy of collaborating with the community to foster effective social service programs? Absolutely. But the financial support should come in the form of merit-based grants to community organizations (including churches), under programs that don't highlight or specify religious institutions as the sole or primary recipients, and the accounting of such grants - particularly when they go to churches - has to be strictly judged to insure that the money is going to the government's purpose of reducing poverty, not the churches main purpose of converting people to their faith.

I think the face of racism today is very different from that of the 50's and 60's. While head-on racism still exists (and my family, which is integrated, has experienced it first-hand), there's a lot less of that type of racism now than there was a few decades ago, and my son is going to grow up in a world that is less hostile than the one his mother grew up in, just as she grew up in a better environment than her mother. Where racism is still rampant, though, is in institutions, particularly our educational system. And a lot of the most effective practitioners of racist behavior would never consider themselves racist. But when you have 35 children in your class, it's easy to assume that the African-American student who speaks poor English and acts surly is likely to fail, and, with 35 students, a teacher's strategy is generally to focus on the students that they assume are able to succeed. Is it also a problem that many black children will ostracize the A students? Of course. But to consider that this behavior is unrelated to the low expectations these children face in school is ridiculous, and one problem can't be solved without solving the other.

The thing that disappoints me most about our candidates is that they aren't talking about the abolition of the safety net that kept many Americans out of poverty, and they aren't talking about how "No Child Left Behind" is leaving whole schools behind. This is happening mostly in low income areas where they aren't making the test scores, regardless of what other improvements they might be making. More to the point, the live or die test scores are further stressing out teachers and interfering with their ability to deal with any but the best-prepped (often wealthiest) children.

We have a crisis in this country in education and in the growth of the ranks of the poor. The government - Democrat or Republican - can't outsource the fixing of those problems to the churches. We need to develop policies and budgets that support Americans. Just as well-known blacks like Bill Cosby and Barack Obama are ashamed of their poorer race-mates behavior, they need to be ashamed of and concerned by the poverty and racism that the behavior thrives in. And Presidential candidates should be talking about how the government they oversee is going to solve these problems, not just dump them on the already-struggling communities.

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