Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama: Could both be right about responsibility?

As reported by the New York Times today, the Rev. Jesse Jackson apologized for critical and crude comments he made about Senator Barack Obama. While regrettable in a number of ways, this incident sheds welcome light on an issue that needs to be discussed more openly, the question of responsibility for the current state of affairs in poor black communities. One is reminded that the director's original tag line for Dare Not Walk Alone was "The War of Responsibility." Watching the movie certainly puts sentiments like Rev. Jackson's in context.

Now Senator Obama is inclined to say that absentee fathers are, at least in part, to blame for some of the problems afflicting black Americans, for example: “We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.” Rev. Jackson thinks this is “talking down to black people.” Rev. Jackson says other issues should be highlighted, including unemployment, the mortgage crisis and the number of blacks in prison. In other words, past actions by white are also to blame.

According to a statement by Rev. Jackson reported in the Times: “My appeal was for the moral content of his message to not only deal with the personal and moral responsibility of black males, but to deal with the collective moral responsibility of government and the public policy which would be a corrective action for the lack of good choices that often led to their irresponsibility.”

Surely both men are right. There is definitely a woeful lack of good choices in some communities. And bad choices by white politicians have not helped. It has to be very discouraging to grow up in a neighborhood that has no sewer system and then watch your county commissioners divert federal funds intended for sewer improvements into a wealthy and predominantly white sub-division. Or attend a school that has far less resources than the white school on the other side of town.

But the fact is, some people succeed despite such things, and maybe some of them are able to do so because they have fathers who stuck by them and encouraged them. And while some fathers shirk their responsibilities for purely selfish reasons, others find themselves ill-equipped to cope with their responsibilities. As the Times points out, the way you see this issue is partly determined by your age. Here's what Rev. Jackson's son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, who serves as a national co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, had to say: “Reverend Jackson is my dad, and I’ll always love him...[but]...I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Back in 2003-2004, when Dare Not Walk Alone was conceived, it was almost impossible to think that America could have a public debate on this topic. That is one reason so few people were prepared to back the film. Which proves things can change a lot in four years.

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