On the night of the Iowa Caucus, George F. Will, syndicated columnist, appeared on CNN, stating that AL Sharpton and Jessie Jackson were the biggest losers in Iowa. Will and others were remarking that the Obama campaign signals the end of purely race-based politics. I was shocked by the boldness of the statement. Will seemed to believe that the days of black candidates only receiving votes from other blacks is over. As a mainstream white, political commentator, his words seemed to confirm the hopes of many blacks - both liberal and conservative.
If this assertion is true, we may be partially realizing one political aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. The New Hampshire Primary will undoubtedly give a similar message to Iowa’s. Therefore, we may be poised to transition into a deeper phase of racial reconciliation. Let’s hope so.
One of the questions I have asked myself is whether the Obama phenomenon has more to do with the uniqueness of the man rather than signaling a major social transition. The greatest power of Obama’s candidacy may be symbolic. He and his family look like the fictional Huckstable family that Bill Cosby created decades ago. They don’t have to win in order to change the nation. They simply have to run well.
To prove my point, let me cite a recent event in pop cultural history. The day after the Caucus, Al Sharpton appeared on Jay Leno, surprisingly extolling Obama’s virtue and wisdom. What a contrast the Leno interview was compared to his disparaging comments just a few months ago. He and Jesse Jackson had conducted a tag team assault on the Senator. Jesse even went so far as to rail on the Senator in a major press conference. As a result, the nation was awash with commentary about the “civil rights warhorse’s” declaration that Senator Barak Obama was “being too white” as it pertained to the Jena 6 problem in Louisiana.
Why was Jackson so upset with Obama? The answer is quite simple. It was an expression of a sophisticated turf war for the ideological leadership of the black community.
Perhaps the root of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton’s problems lie in their leadership concepts and philosophy. Shelby Steele, a conservative black writer, has postulated that whenever leading blacks seem too much like unifiers or “bargainers,” they are held suspect by the majority of the traditional black community. By contrast, “challengers” like Jackson and Sharpton have historically been deemed “true blue” by the black masses. Dr. Steele lays out his assessment of Obama in a thought provoking work titled A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win.
This paradigm also explains the skepticism many blacks have had concerning Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. These attractive “bargainers” seem to have failed to have their “black membership card” validated.
If black politicians are combative champions of black rights, whites are often intimidated. Therefore in the average black political campaign, there is a potential problem of alienation or polarization. If whites accept them, blacks will often withdraw. Conversely, if these candidates champion every black issue, they quickly will be seen as too radical. Potential groundbreaking leaders often draw back into a political safety zone which is dominated by the ideology of Sharpton, Jackson, and others.
Last November, the Pew Research Group released a groundbreaking study which suggested that blacks self identify as being part of one of two different black Americas. Let me translate the Pew findings into Steele’s language. The first black America is an impoverished group that responds to the leadership of “challengers.” They are the poor - the have nots. The second group is the aspiring black middle class which holds fast to the ideals of hard work and upward mobility through education. They respond best to leaders who would be dubbed as “bargainers.”
Pew Research confirmed what savvy black Americans already knew about their community. This division is firmly entrenched in the black community. Obama may actually be one of the first black politicians to break out of this sociological death grip. His appeal to upwardly mobile whites in Iowa and New Hampshire is consistent with this analysis. As he rises to even greater national visibility, more black voters may now embrace him on the grounds of simple racial pride. After all, he has the potential to go further than any of the previous black presidential candidates: Carol Mosley Braun, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Allen Keyes, or Al Sharpton.
Obama will no doubt remain a cultural icon for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the race. Many conservative blacks have seen the Democratic Party as a political plantation which only oppresses or uses black voters without offering leadership opportunities. In fairness to the Democratic machine, they have made major strides by supporting Obama’s run for office. In contrast, the Republican movement has not been as successful in bridging the racial divide.
Let me give you an example from the two convention speeches given by major black leaders in 2004. Obama spoke eloquently for the Democratic Party, while Michael Steele carried the water for the Republicans. There are many similarities between the two men. Both are extremely articulate and intelligent. Both received law degrees from one of America’s top schools. Both are unifiers and “bargainers.” As a result, they were both hailed as prototypical black candidates for their respective parties, yet the last four years have treated them very differently. Obama is breaking political records, while Michael Steele is not currently serving in an elected capacity.
To conclude, I agree with George F. Will’s post-caucus statement that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were the biggest losers of the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary race. Although they were not on the ballot in either location, their “concepts” about American politics were analyzed, tested and defeated. Thankfully, we have taken another important step toward healing America’s racial divide.