Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Race

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 2001

It has been a steep slope indeed from the Reverend Martin Luther King to the likes of Jesse Jackson. Dr. King was a man of profound faith and great dignity who shamed America into treating its black citizens in accordance with its own principles as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He was a man of good will who looked forward, he said, to the day when people would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the "content of their character." Dr. King was martyred as he strove to dismantle institutional racism in America, but he and the civil rights movement that he led were successful.

Mr. Jackson lives off the capital created by Dr. King, but his agenda represents a degraded version of the original civil rights movement. He seeks not unity, but division; not adherence to principle, but power; not a color-blind society based on character, but a society in which color trumps all else. African-Americans are victims and he is their deliverer.

Mr. Jackson’s vision dovetails very nicely with the central idea of today’s Democratic Party–that America is a nation of victims who must turn to government for relief. Here is the bargain. Give us your vote to keep us in power, and we will provide programs that will ameliorate your status as victims while vindicating your victim-hood.

One part of the bargain came to pass during the 2000 election. African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore, casting 90 percent of their ballots for him over George W. Bush. This may be good for the Democratic Party, but it is bad for African-Americans. And it is bad for the country as a whole.

It is bad for blacks because it means in all likelihood that the Democratic Party will continue to take them for granted, reasoning that they have no place else to go. Indeed, there is a great danger for African-Americans that the Republicans will accept this logic and simply write them off in the future. It is bad for the country because it suggests that the black vote is monolithic and that the way to win it is not to treat African-Americans as equals but as a dependent interest group to be pandered to.

Dr. King appealed to the conscience, if not the good will, of whites who opposed the civil rights agenda–As Lincoln would have it, "to the better angels of our souls." On the contrary, Mr. Jackson exploits the guilt of white liberals while he stirs up fear and resentment among African-Americans. He draws the charge of "racism" like a gun, usually without any evidence to support his claim. The irony in this is that in reality, Mr. Jackson’s public statements indicate a view of African-Americans not all that different from that of David Duke and other white supremacists of that ilk.

What both Jesse Jackson and David Duke argue in essence is that blacks are not able to "make it" in America without special help from the government. While they agree on the alleged fact that blacks are incapable of prospering on their own in America, they differ on the policy implications. Mr. Duke doesn’t want to provide government help. Mr. Jackson insists upon it.

Again, Mr. Jackson’s view fits very nicely with the liberal racism that plays such a large role in the Democratic Party. This racism manifests itself as the idea that there is a "black" way of thinking and that anyone who does not toe the line on such issues as affirmative action, racial set asides, school vouchers, privatization of social security, etc. is not really "black." Indeed, one of Jesse Jackson ’s jobs within the Democratic Party is to play the enforcer–to bully anyone who might stray from the Democratic Party line. Ask Clarence Thomas or Thomas Sowell.

African-Americans should ask themselves what they gain by their steadfast loyalty to the Democratic Party. They might start by examining how the interests of African-Americans fare compared to those of other Democratic interest groups.

How about labor unions? Most people think that unions have increased the portion of national income that goes to labor. Wrong. Unions have benefited union members at the expense of non-union workers. Along the way, they have successfully excluded minorities from the ranks of skilled labor.

How about the education establishment, specifically the teachers’ unions? No one has suffered more from bad schools than African-Americans. As Starr Parker, a black critic of Jesses Jackson remarked, "those [black] Florida voters weren’t disenfranchised because they had broken voting booths; they’re disenfranchised because they can’t read." Some 80 percent of black parents favor vouchers and school choice, but the NEA opposes these steps and so they languish. Of course, well-to-do liberals, white or black, do not send their children to public schools.

The welfare establishment? Even those who insist that welfare was a good idea now must confront the evidence that its effect on urban black families has been devastating. Four decades ago, black families may have been poor but they were intact. That meant that, like generations of immigrants before them, black children had the means to lift themselves out of poverty. But welfare regulations made males superfluous and led to the "feminization" of poverty. The urban poor, especially those who are black, have been reaping the harvest of the seeds of good intentions for some years now.

Finally, how do the interests of African-Americans stack up against those of the forces of secularism in the Democratic Party? On the one hand, black churches provide a service of great benefit to the Democratic Party. They have always been at the center of black political life, whether in the struggle against slavery or Jim Crow, or during the civil rights era. But today, they are the means for mobilizing the black vote on behalf of the Party, period.

On the other, it is with respect to religion that the essential cynicism of liberal racism shines through most clearly. As the battles over crèches or menorahs on public property that occur about this time every year reveal, liberal secularists see religion as a threat to democracy itself. Nothing strikes terror into the heart of a standard liberal quite like "the religious right."

But while white churches are to be feared, black churches are harmless and quaint. The liberal wife of a liberal professor of mine once revealed why. "Blacks," she said, "still need religion." Here was the face of liberal racism–not contorted in hatred, but smug and condescending toward her childlike "inferiors"–rather like the "ole miss" of a great plantation in the years before the Civil War.

It will not be easy for the Republicans to make inroads among African-Americans. The Democratic Party has done its work well, scaring blacks into believing that the Republicans wear white sheets and burn crosses. But on many issue, for example school choice, welfare reform and crime, Republican proposals will benefit blacks more than Democratic ones.

The best opportunity for establishing common ground between African-Americans and Republicans is to stress the unpublicized "faith-based" and free-market solutions to race and poverty that many black organizations have already embraced. President-elect Bush has taken steps in this direction, meeting with black clergymen, pointedly excluding Mr. Jackson.

African-Americans are better off today because Martin Luther King followed in the footsteps of Moses, who led the Children of Israel out of bondage in the land of Egypt. While employing the rhetoric of Dr. King, Mr. Jackson would lead his people back to Egypt.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.