Jesse Jackson's grade-B performance over the past several months has highlighted several issues in ways he never intended.
First came the news of his illegitimate daughter via a longtime mistress - the birth occurring at approximately the height of his role as spiritual counselor to a libertine president. Next came allegations of extortion (The Washington Post put it this way: "Jackson has been accused of pressuring companies into making large donations to his movement under the threat of black boycotts.")
Then came the news the mistress had been on the payroll of his rainbow of tax-exempt organizations (hush money, maybe?) - a revelation closely followed by the disclosure that through an um, er, oversight, income paid to the mistress had failed to make it onto tax forms required of the organizations.
Whereupon it was the VRWC all over again. Jackson declared himself the latest victim of the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy. The Post headlined its story about his 90-minute press conference, "Jackson Denies Financial Impropriety, Says He's a Victim." Elsewhere, Jackson said:
"I've seen this attack by the right wing before. It's about trying to dismember our organization. ... We file our [tax] returns every year. We have an audit. It's the government's job to protect its rights, not to allow right-wing extremists to seek to discredit or destroy us."
Jackson has suffered such serious hits that African-American leadership might default to even more confrontational individuals such as New York's Rev. Al Sharpton, who generally makes his in-your-face way by disparaging the innocent, lionizing the guilty, and creating issues where issues are not.
And this in turn raises profound questions about the nation's African-American leadership, so called, and how well it is serving its precincts.
The Democratic Party has captured black constituencies to the point that African-Americans constitute perhaps the most reliably Democratic voting bloc. Just one of the African-Americans in Congress is a Republican - a pattern mirrored in state legislatures. Try as Republicans in the party of Lincoln might, they do not make serious inroads.
Yes, the Senate's first black in modern times was a Republican, the late Edward Brooke; yes, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are Republicans; yes, a Republican nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. But black Republicans and conservative black intellectuals are widely reviled as politically incorrect - deviationists from the ideological creed who just don't get it and have wandered off the reservation.
The Hoover Institution's Shelby Steele, who is black:
"When preferential liberalism defines blackness..., then personal responsibility, individual initiative, hard work, and the entire constellation of 'conservative' virtues become a form of racism. These virtues attack the current idea of what it means to be black - the liberal faith that racial victimization makes responsibility a futility unless it is undergirded by preferences."
The University of California's John McWhorter, who is black, on the "cult of victimology":
"[Victimhood is one of several] ideological holding patterns that are today much, much more serious barriers to black well-being than is white racism, and that constitute a continuous, self-sustaining act of self-sabotage. ... [It has become a] keystone of cultural blackness to treat victimhood not as a problem to be solved but as an identity to be nurtured."
Similar sentiments are voiced frequently by columnists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, and by Ward Connerly of California initiative fame - all of whom are black.
Mainstream black leaders, so closely allied with the Democrats (last year 75 percent of Jesse Jackson's travel expenses reportedly were covered by the Democratic Party), foster the view that black underachievement, for instance, is a consequence of an American racism as oppressive as ever. It suggests African-Americans, forever wronged, are forever helpless. It relies on quotas and affirmative action and set-asides - and lamentably not, in Steele's words, on the "personal responsibility" that ought to be "the new frontier of social reform."
Here in Virginia, a Republican governor has produced a Civil War proclamation lauded by one of his predecessors - Douglas Wilder, the only African-American ever elected governor of any state. Said Wilder: "The governor is trying to show the Civil War was an American tragedy. I hope this stops it from being a cause célèbre for one group or another. It was his intention to clear the air, and I think it does clear the air."
Nationally, a Republican president is seeking to advance the welfare of (principally) minorities through his commendable faith-based initiatives. Yet these too often are niggled and dismissed for allegedly offending the Constitution's church-state mandates, by precisely some of the same mainline minority leaders who send Democratic campaigners into minority churches on Sundays running up to Election Days.
This could be changing. The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume notes, "The Democratic Party has taken black voters for granted." And numerous African-American preachers are embracing the Bush initiatives, in defiance of mainline black leaders. For example:
- Boston's Rev. Eugene Rivers: "Right now, it's really coming down to the black preachers vs. the black Democrats."
- Buffalo's Rev. Martin Brown: "Now that faith leaders are saying we have a voice, we don't want civil activists to speak on behalf of the faith community."
- Los Angeles' Bishop Charles Blake and New York's Rev. Floyd Flake (formerly a member of the Congressional Black Caucus) echo those views and see - in the Rev. Mr. Rivers' words - continuing church challenges, particularly in Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, to "the acknowledged gatekeepers" of "a declining civil rights industry."
It may not be a groundswell. But it may mark the beginning of a throwback to a time, 37 years ago, when Ralph Ellison described "an American Negro tradition ... which abhors as obscene any trading on one's anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done."
"Men at their best." Individual responsibility. Not walking around with one's hand out, but taking charge of one's life. And shunning at last the patronizing paladins of a brooding victimhood....
We just might be in the midst of a momentous hour.