What Did Jesse Jackson Really Mean? What did Jesse Jackson really mean when he says Obama is "talking down to black people?" What does it say about the relationship between Barack Obama and the civil rights establishment? For insight, Farai Chideya speaks with law professor Christopher Bracey.
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What Did Jesse Jackson Really Mean?

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What Did Jesse Jackson Really Mean?

What Did Jesse Jackson Really Mean?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And for analysis we turn to Christopher Bracey. He's a professor of law, African and African-American studies at George Washington University's school of law. He's also the author of "Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice." Thanks for joining us again.

Professor CHRISTOPHER BRACEY (Law and African-American Studies, George Washington University): Oh, it's my pleasure to be on.

CHIDEYA: So, there has been so much traffic on the internet, so many people talking about this. Reverend Jackson says he wants to get out there and apologize early, but is this a permanent mark against his place in history?

Professor BRACEY: Well you know, it's funny because Reverend Jackson has been an integral part of the civil rights movement since early on and he used the metaphor of a race, a 54-year race and Barack Obama is running the last leg of the race. But what appears to be the case, in this situation, is that Reverend Jackson isn't fully willing to hand off that baton, stand down and cheer as Obama runs. He wants to be involved, and in this particular moment his involvement seems to have somewhat tragic consequences.

CHIDEYA: Let's start with the atmospherics of the issue. What does it say about the relationship between Obama and the civil rights establishment? Not just Reverend Jackson, but other people of that age or from that background?

Professor BRACEY: Well, I think what it tells us is that to a certain extent the civil rights establishment is a little bit worried about passing the baton of power. I mean here, Barack Obama is coming into a power position where he's going to be able to govern. This is the dream and aspiration of many black folks of our generation and generations past. So, they rightly want to be involved with that. They rightly want to put their stamp on that legacy. They want to be able to influence the role of governance in the 21st century. And yet, it's unclear whether they fully understand, I'm talking now about the civil rights generation, whether they fully understand the differences in style and approach that are represented by 21st century black politics.

CHIDEYA: Now, oddly enough, or not at all because it's a small world, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., is a national co-chair of Obama's campaign. He said in a statement, quote, "He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself." So what's that father-son dynamic?

Professor BRACEY: That's a harsh statement. I mean, you know, some of us were expecting - I mean because this is a very delicate matter for Barack Obama. On the one hand he wants to keep those civil rights establishment figures behind him, supporting him throughout this general election period, but at the same time he knows well that if he can create a little bit of distance with Jesse Jackson, he may be able to pull on more moderate Democrats, white and black, and maybe even some moderate Republicans.

But Jesse Jackson, Jr. seems to have taken the lead and seems particularly angry and personally offended by what his father had done. And it suggests that the relationship there is somewhat fractured as well.

CHIDEYA: Let's go deeper, linguistically into this. When, at the time that I spoke with Reverend Jackson, and this was yesterday, we believed, knowing what we did, we being most of the press, that he had said that Senator Obama had emasculated himself. As it turned out, the phrase was much rougher and much more, you know, I want to blank, blank, blank. Is there a difference between those two ways, neither of them particularly nice, of parsing out lack of manhood?

Professor BRACEY: Well, you know, I actually read that slightly differently. When I heard about the specific comments and the castration and sort of the anger in which it was delivered, even though it was a whisper of. I immediately began to think back historically about, you know, the ways and which powerful black men, or uppity black men were punished.

And it was, you know, the threat of castration was very real in the 19th century. And there's a moment of irony that Jesse Jackson would want to assert his power, his relevance, to Barack Obama's campaign by placing himself over Barack in a sense in suggesting that he is the man and also capable of taking Barack's manhood away.

CHIDEYA: Coming up this weekend, we have the start of the NAACP's annual convention and although he has not started yet, Ben Jealous is the incoming president. He's 35. He's going to be the youngest president ever of the NAACP. We seem to be seeing a generational shift overall. Is there going to be blood on the floor, metaphorically, as this shift happens?

Professor BRACEY: You know, there's going to be some rough spots, there's no doubt about that. But you know, I think right now that no pun intended, the NAACP is in a state of crisis when it comes to young folks. You know, our generation doesn't view the NAACP as particularly relevant in the way that our parents' generation and our parents' parents' generation did.

And so there is going to have to be a revitalization of the NAACP and I think that the civil rights' establishments are going to have to stand down and allow the young folks to articulate their vision for that organization. And there's going to be some feelings hurts, there are going to be some criticisms levied against the civil rights' establishment. But I think they're going to have to hold their tongue a little bit this weekend and allow this to run its course.

CHIDEYA: Finally, and very briefly, what does Reverend Jackson need to do to ensure that he goes down in history as someone who's accomplished many things, and not a bitter old man?

Professor BRACEY: Well, I mean, I don't think that this looks to tarnish Jesse Jackson's overall legacy. There are many events prior to this that would have tarnished his legacy more generously than the comment against Obama. I think the main thing that Jesse Jackson needs to do is begin to act more strategically, more supportive behind the scenes, less open on the microphone. More grassroots organizing and making those connections to ensure success for Barack Obama in November.

CHIDEYA: All right, Christopher, thanks.

Professor BRACEY: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Christopher Bracey is a professor of law, African and African-American studies at George Washington University's school of law. He's the author of "Saviors or Sellouts: the Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism." And we want to know what you think about Jackson's comments. To share your thoughts, go to our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.

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