Why Jesse’s Testy: Obama’s ‘Tough Love’ for Black Community

Barack Obama Jesse Jackson
Photo: Getty Images, AP

Welcome to the “I had no idea that was being recorded” club, Reverend Jesse Jackson! Standing room only.

On Sunday, the man who until relatively recently was the most viable black presidential candidate in the country’s history went a little off message, you could say, on the set of Fox News. Believing that his mike was off, Reverend Jackson whispered to a visibly uncomfortable Dr. Reed Tuckson that Barack Obama had been “talking down to black people” and that he desired to “cut his nuts off.” While it’s debatable as to whether Obama has been “talking down” to black people, and indeed how effective castration would be as a remedy, it’s true that Obama has frequently offered so-called “tough love” to black audiences throughout the presidential campaign. Focusing mainly on themes of education and parenting, Obama hasn’t shied away from criticizing aspects of black culture that he sees as contributing to the some of the problems the black community faces in America today:

• On Tuesday at a town-hall meeting in Georgia, Obama dismissed rapping and basketball as career aspirations: “You can’t find a job, unless you are a really, really good basketball player — which most of you brothas are not. I know you think you are, but you’re not. You are overrated in your own mind. You will not play in the NBA. You are probably not that good a rapper. Maybe you are the next Lil’ Wayne, but probably not, in which case you need to stay in school.”

• On June 15, in a Father’s Day speech in front of a predominantly black audience at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Obama decried absentee fathers: “What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.” He also mocked the unwarranted celebrations surrounding minor educational accomplishments: “Don't get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation. You're supposed to graduate from the eighth grade!"

• On February 28, in front of a predominantly black audience in Beaumont, Texas, Obama criticized the lax nutritional standards of some parents: “Y'all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y'all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That's why y'all laughing … You can't do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school."

• On January 20, Martin Luther King Day, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Obama addressed prejudice in the black community: “We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.”

• On July 15, 2007, at the Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago, Obama again focused on parenting: “There's a reason they go out and shoot each other, because they don't love themselves. And the reason they don't love themselves is because we are not loving them enough.”

• On June 28, 2007, at a Democratic debate at Howard University, Obama discussed the relationship between homophobia in black communities and the lack of education on AIDS: “We don’t talk about this. We don’t talk about it in the schools. Sometimes we don’t talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of sometimes homophobia that we don’t address this issue as clearly as it needs to be.”

• In April 2007, according to the Washington Post, Obama told a group of black South Carolina state legislators: “In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, 'You know what would be a good economic-development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren't throwing their garbage out of their cars.’”

• On March 4, 2007, in a speech in Selma, Alabama, Obama returned to the issues of education and parenting: “I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was acting white, we've got to get over that mentality.”

What to make of all this? There’s no reason to believe Obama’s critical messages are anything but sincere, but they happen to be good politics as well. The black audiences at which he directs his “tough love” almost always respond with approval or applause, and his support among black voters has been rock-solid, regularly racking up 80 to 90 percent of the black vote during the Democratic primaries. Meanwhile, Obama is partaking in what’s basically tantamount to a long-running Sister Souljah campaign, demonstrating to white voters that he’s not beholden to the black community nor scapegoating whites for its ailments. So it’s ultimately a win-win. Unless Jesse Jackson gets ahold of some scissors, and then nobody wins. —Dan Amira

Earlier: Jesse Jackson Apologizes for Badmouthing Barack Obama Before We Even Know What He Said