One of the more interesting discussions to come out of the Democratic National Convention, which mercifully ended days ago, concerned the state of American racial politics. Did the keynote address by Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama prefigure the beginning of a new, more centrist politics that transcends race? Or did the elevation of the notorious agitator Al Sharpton to a primetime speaking slot signify that racial obsession and identity politics are in fact ascending to unprecedented heights?
Some, like my colleague Nicholas Stix, are more skeptical that the distinction being drawn in print between the two Democrats is necessarily as great as advertised. But I’ll leave that debate to others. I like to point out progress wherever it can be found, so I’ll point out this all-too-rare example: Jesse Jackson, the nation’s leading purveyor of identity politics, came to Boston to practice his shtick and received his comeuppance.
Boston, like many major urban areas throughout the country, has had a troubled history in race relations. While forced busing was an episode of wrongheaded judicial social engineering, some of the opposition to it spilled over the line into ugliness and intolerance. Images of adults throwing rocks at school buses carrying black children were broadcast nationwide a decade after school desegregation commenced in the South. Incidents dividing the city along racial lines continued into the early 1990s, including the notorious Charles Stuart case in which a black man was falsely accused of murdering a white woman and wounding her husband.
This was the past that Jackson sought to exploit when he came into town for the Democrats’ convention with one of his familiar lectures aimed at eliciting concessions in the form of racial preferences and wealth redistribution. Speaking to the press on the second day of the convention, Jackson publicly chastised the city for what he saw as its lack of racial progress and failure to adequately serve as a “shining light on the hill.” (What is it with the Democrats this year? First, they highlight Ronald Reagan’s son as a speaker to promote policies the 40th president would have almost surely opposed; then, the party’s spokesmen mangle his signature phrase.)
In what was both a startling display of liberal disunity as well as a frank endorsement of race-based redistributionism, Jackson singled out Harvard for a special rebuke. “Harvard has a 20 billion dollar endowment,” the activist is quoted as saying in the Boston Herald on July 28. “Not one black has ever managed a dime… (n)o black has ever managed a dime of Harvard’s money, so the wealth must be shared.”
But then an unexpected thing happened: Boston’s political leadership did not bend over backwards in a fit of apologies to appease the Rev. Jackson. Instead, they fired back in defense of the city’s strides in race relations.
“It’s nice he comes into our city and makes a statement like that,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino sarcastically retorted. He told the Boston Herald that in his 11 years as mayor, Jackson has never contacted him to discuss any racial or other issue involving the city.
African-American activists who actually work regularly in Boston’s black neighborhoods also took issue with Jackson’s comments. “Jesse’s talking trash and blowing smoke,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, chairman of the Ten Point Coalition. “This is Jesse’s showboat.”
Rivers seconded Menino’s assessment of Jackson’s lack of involvement in Boston: “Jesse Jackson has never, ever come to me or any of the black clergy that work on the streets of the city of Boston. Jesse has been too big to actually meet with the black clergy that work in the trenches and have been doing that for many years, so we are sort of mildly amused that Jesse has so much to say about something he knows so little about.”
The Boston Herald also reported the reaction of a black state legislator who immigrated to the Boston area from Haiti in 1969. “I guess the reverend is entitled to his opinion,” said Democratic state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, “but as an individuals who was raised here… in the city of Boston, I have seen an experienced major changes. To tell me there hasn’t been progress is not real for me.” Darnell Williams of the Urban League told Boston’s WCVB TV he was “shocked by the statement Rev. Jackson made, but at same time, Rev. Jackson made a good point to galvanize us to respond.” The combined force of these responses led Jackson to amend and considerably soften, if not entirely retract, his comments.
None of this is to suggest that any of Jackson’s critics quoted here would share my political views on all questions related to civil rights or other issues. Most of them, including Menino, are liberal Democrats. But this incident and the honest response it drew from many Boston community leaders offers us an important reminder.
Many of the politicos who profess to speak on behalf of minorities are actually quite removed from the people whose interests they claim to represent. Often they are pushing agendas that have little to do with those interests and more to do with an ideology in which it is more important to categorize people as victims or oppressors than to actually accomplish any measurable results.
When a self-styled civil-rights leader can defame an obviously imperfect but improving city, when a California legislator can protest a state education official calling a little girl a name only until he finds out she is white, and when critics can attack Bill Cosby for perfectly reasonable comments on education and personal responsibility, this disconnect between ideology and practical results is evident. If people continue to speak out with the truth when these outrages occur, we will make greater progress toward a new politics that moves beyond race than any political convention speech is likely to attain.