POS334-L: THE RACE AND ETHNICITY BOOK REVIEW DISCUSSION LIST
|email@example.com||Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)|
|Rob Huck <firstname.lastname@example.org>||Re: Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)|
|"Michael A. Schoenfield" <email@example.com>||Re: Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)|
|"James Henson" <firstname.lastname@example.org>||RACIAL INTEGRATION IN AMERICA | JESSE (Henson)|
Date: Mon, 10 Feb 1997 14:50:41 -0600
Subject: Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)
Tom Wicker, (TRAGIC FAILURE: RACIAL INTEGRATION IN AMERICA), William Morrow
and Company, Inc., 1996.
Review by Pam Ashworth
Of what value is political power in the United States? For
African-Americans, political power is not sufficient for gaining true racial
integration in this country. One need only look at events since the civil
rights movement in order to be convinced of this fact. Instead, social and
economic advancements are needed in the black community, for this is the
sole route to racial equality. To reach this goal, new approaches are
necessary and may include the formation of a new political party.
Contrary to the expectations of many white Americans, the end of legal
segregation in the South did not mean an end to racial inequality for
African-Americans. Of course, the civil rights movement of the 1960's can
rightfully claim many successes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised to
fight discrimination at work and to provide "equal access to public
facilities"(p. 7). The force of the federal government backed the right to
vote for black Americans with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, when
whites started to worry about their communities, property values, and job
prospects, black advancements became a threat. Suddenly, racial integration
was moving too fast, and African-Americans were receiving too much.
Such feelings led to Wicker's "white backlash," which was fueled by new
white concerns following the civil rights movement. Blacks were no longer
seen as complacent. Instead, they praised black culture, were indifferent
to white attitudes about them, and openly attacked discrimination in unions,
colleges, corporations, and wherever it could be found. Even worse for
white Americans, "the black power movement was a direct, not merely
implicit, challenge to...tacitly acknowledged white superiority, tacitly
accepted black inferiority"(p. 90). Busing plans to help desegregate public
schools met striking opposition from white parents. The race riots of the
late 1960's further fanned the flames of white apprehension. Lastly,
affirmative action- or quotas, as it was frequently perceived by whites-
added a "bitter pill of economic competition...to an already bubbling
cauldron of racial animosities"(p. 97).
The failure of the American two-party system- particularly the Democratic
party- to respond appropriately to the "white backlash" leads Wicker to
conclude that the Democrats have failed African-Americans. For example, the
imprisonment rate for African-Americans still greatly exceeds that of their
white counterparts. The growing black middle-class is seldom discussed and
often overlooked. Black unemployment rates, particularly for young adults
and teenagers, is typically twice that of white Americans. New crime
measures such as "three strikes and your out" and mandatory sentencing for
drug, especially crack cocaine, dealers, affect blacks disproportionately.
The list of similar grievances is enormous, yet racial integration for
African-Americans is no longer on the political agenda. When race is
incorporated into today's political debate, it is done so only through the
use of code-words: welfare, gangs, crime, inner-city, drugs, underclass,
family values. Questions regarding economic and social advancement for
black Americans- the only way to achieve racial equality- are not being
addressed by the political establishment, for the "white backlash" continues.
Consequently, what is needed in the United States is a new political party
that can acknowledge the social and economic disparity between white and
black America. This party must not only appeal to the majority of
African-Americans, it has to welcome white Americans from the lowest rungs
of the socio-economic ladder. Essential to the success of a new party,
moreover, are the approximately 50% of the voting age population that
currently does not participate in the political process. If these groups
can unite in a political party, the dreams of real racial integration may be
To Wicker's credit, he is not overly optimistic of this new party's
chances. Certainly, only a charismatic leader could possibly bring these
groups together, but presently, such a figure has not appeared. Colin
Powell offered some hope, yet he seems to have aligned himself with the
Republican party. Furthermore, there is an additional, and perhaps, greater
obstacle to finding an individual capable of guiding this party that Wicker
does not fully appreciate. The traditionally poor record of third parties
in the United States may lead one to conclude that alignment with this party
equals political failure at the polls. Thus, a politician dedicated more to
racial equality than to his or her political career must be found.
A second weakness in Wicker's political party solution lies in its
membership. The author does address the historically tenuous relationship
between many low-income whites and African-Americans. For instance, it is
often poor whites who are most threatened by black advancements and programs
like Affirmative Action. However, even if this new party advocates economic
and social equality for all Americans, it still must overcome the generally
racist feelings of many poor whites. After all, there is a strong
correlation between low educational levels, low income, and low racial
tolerance- all of which are likely to be found amongst this group.
Similarly, such characteristics will presumably be found in the large number
of current non-participants in the political process, for these features
frequently exist in those who do not vote,as well. Although these groups
may identify with the party's goals, close associational ties with
African-Americans may prove impossible. Wicker's membership drive,
therefore, may be even more difficult than he imagined.
Despite the author's affinity for this new political party, Wicker does
recognize other proposed solutions to America's racial problems. One
interesting example involves gerrymandering, or the redrawing of district
lines. After the census of 1990, reapportionment led to a "record number"
of congressional victories for African-Americans. Not surprisingly,
however, this led to claims that the redistricting in recent years was
unconstitutional. Supreme Court decisions on the subject merely attracted
additional challenges to district lines in numerous states. As Wicker aptly
demonstrates, the High Court has not been sympathetic to these
Yet Wicker does not stop there. He rightfully suggests that the increased
number of African-American elected officials is "hardly a revolution."(p.
111). More importantly, he asserts that these supposed gains have had
political costs for black Americans. The loss of Democratic control in the
House of Representatives is an example. The Republican party acquired
sixteen new seats in the elections of 1994- seats that had formerly
belonged to southern Democrats. These new positions are partly a result of
the placement of many African-Americans into majority-minority districts.
Consequently, there were "fewer black voters in white-majority districts,
hence an improved Republican chance to carry them"(p. 116). Although
Wicker's is a complex analysis and one certain to draw criticism, he
uncovers a recent phenomenon of redistricting easily missed by political
commentators. He indicates that he is a political scientist as well as a
No account of the plight of African-Americans would be complete without a
review of the black family, and Wicker's is sobering. The "family
breakdown" is attributed to various factors, yet nearly all have
socio-economic roots. The loss of job opportunities in the city, for
example, means not only high unemployment for urban blacks but
discouragement, as well. Discouraged fathers do not provide "strong male
role models in the family," and single parenthood becomes more attractive
than husbands "unable to support a family"(p. 129). Single parents, forced
to work in order to survive, offer no real supervision to children, who turn
to the streets for "lack of any more attractive or useful place to turn"(p.
126). Of course, crime, drugs, violence, poverty, poor housing, and poor
schools are part of Wicker's picture, but it is the family structure that is
One important factor, however, is missing in Wicker's account: the
extended black family. This element may not be sufficient to counter all
the forces at work against the African-American family, but its support is
often instrumental in keeping the family going. Grandparents, cousins,
aunts, uncles, and a host of others frequently lend their help when times
are at their roughest. To overlook these people is to underestimate the
family structure that Wicker attempts to describe.
Wicker's journalistic approach may lack the emotional pull of Kozol or
Kotlowitz, but perhaps this is the only way to cover such a wide range of
issues. Little is left untouched, including Affirmative Action, employment,
crime, education, health care, drugs, and teenage pregnancy. In addition,
he offers possible solutions to racial inequality and realizes that in the
end, "they can be reached only in the hearts of the people"(p. ix). This
may also prove key to his approach, for talk on race that is bound in
emotion often produces only anger and defensiveness and makes answers even
harder to find.
It is ironic that Wicker asserts that political power for African-Americans
is not enough to overcome racial inequality, yet the strategies he offers
are essentially political. Besides a new political party, he suggests new
public-works programs that will demand public funds and approval by public
officials. Changes in the nation's educational and criminal justice systems
will also mean political action in state legislatures or in Congress.
Indeed, it appears that the political process is impossible to avoid if
racial inequality is to be overcome.
Illinois State University
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Date: Tue, 11 Feb 1997 19:28:30 -0600
From: Rob Huck <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)
Just a few comments on Pam Ashworth's excellent review of the Wicker book.
I agree that a political party for poor Americans is probably a bad
idea. In theory, it sounds nice, but the reality is that poor people
don't vote and they don't (by definition) have money to support political
parties. I believe the Democrats take blacks for granted and the
Republicans write them off, however I don't see a third-party as a
Wicker (and Dr. Klass) were absolutely right in their analysis of racial
gerrymandering. The only ones hurt by it were liberal white Democrats
who had black and latino voters taken out of their districts. This is
why the Republicans never seriously challenged gerrymandering. They were
able to knock liberal whites out of legislatures and the Congress.
Ironically, the only ones who gained from it were the few blacks and
latinos who won office and a lot of white Republicans. This
gerrymandering is also why black community and political leaders were so
opposed to housing vouchers. They wanted to keep their voters in their
districts. It was blatant self-interest on the part of the minority
I will, however, have to disagree with Ms. Ashworth's view of the
extended black family. I agree that ties among aunts, cousins,
grandparents, etc in black families are generally much stronger than in white
families. However, I cannot see how this has helped the condition of black
children. I could be wrong, but even with these extended families, black
men are going to prison in record numbers and black women are having
children out of wedlock in record numbers. I could give a litany of
statistics, but we all know the numbers so I won't waste bandwidth here.
I can't see any evidence that care by an extended family is preferrable
to care by two parents who are both married. If anyone has such
evidence, please post it to the group. I'd love to see it and would be
happy to eat my words.
Robert Huck firstname.lastname@example.org
"If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation, and
malicious speech; If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy
the afflicted; Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the
gloom shall become for you like midday."
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Date: Fri, 14 Feb 1997 13:04:00 -0600
From: "Michael A. Schoenfield" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Tragic Failure: Racial Integration (Ashworth)
I am afraid that I must take exception with your insight that Democrates
take minorities for granted. In my short (50 year) lifetime, I have seen
the Democratic party take any number of positions supporting minorities.
Now, that the vast majority of poor people in this country are White
shouldn't make any difference. I both personally and professionally
believe that Democrats don't take any poor people for granted -- hell,
look at the 1965 civil rights legislation. The job of the President and
Congress is speciafically not to pander to poor people. Minorities only
make up about 14% of the total population of this country (I am going
from memory, so please don't be specific about the percentage). Should
the congress only be concerned with this small segment of the
population? I think not and I am American Indian. Many attempts have
been made to provide avenues for poor people to get out of poverty "if
they so wish." Educational avenues have been opened up, as well as any
number of economic development projects. I am not saying that we should
forget those in poverty, as I have spent a lifetime advocating for them.
Rather, in all fairness I realize that those in poverty are not the only
constituents of elected officials. I personally believe that Education
is the key and have even gone so far as to open up and fund a private
preparatory school in Milwaukee for primarily minority children. And,
yes I am a very active Democrat.
Michael A. Schoenfield
Michael A. Schoenfield & Associates, Ltd.
2637 Mason Street E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Madison, WI 53705-3709 Voice: (608) 238-6121
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Date: Tue, 18 Feb 1997 08:18:18 -0600
From: "James Henson" <email@example.com> (by way of Gary Klass <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
Subject: RACIAL INTEGRATION IN AMERICA | JESSE (Henson)
(This review orignally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, August 30 1996.
Thanks to Professor Klass for allowing me to post it.
-- James Henson, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Government,
Northeast Louisiana University)
Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America by Tom Wicker. William
Morrow and Company, $25, hardcover.
Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson by Marshall Frady. Random
House, $28.50, hardcover.
"However familiar and even tiresomely repeated a proposition by now,"
writes Marshall Frady on the first page of Jesse, "it nevertheless remains
the case that the fundamental American crisis is still that of race."
Similarly, retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker begins Tragic
Failure with the statement that "the continuing separation of whites and
blacks into hostile and unequal classes . . . is the fundamental cause of
the political deadlock, economic inequity, and social rancor that mark
American life." Both books thus begin by attempting to dispense quickly
with the predominant racial reflex of white Americans: denial that race
remains a problem in the United States. These are virtuous starting points
for both of these books, though the complexities that follow from the
honest acknowledgement of the difficulties of racial politics are daunting.
These complexities eventually bog Wicker's book down, but are skillfully
used by Frady to enrich his engrossing account of Jesse Jackson's life.
Tom Wicker primarily addresses the failure of racial integration and civil
rights policies aimed at blacks in the United States. Wicker's suggestion
that a third party is the solution to the racial-economic knot in US
society has received much attention in discussion of the book. But his
third-party remedy, while interesting, doesn't sufficiently appreciate the
structural obstacles to the course he's suggesting. This points to one of
the most interesting aspects of Wicker's book: it exemplifies a commonplace
characteristic of the racial politics of New Deal liberals -- lots of
sincere good will and good intentions, compromised by a lack of
appreciation of the tenacity and depth of racist thought and action.
Tragic Failure is a New Deal liberal's lament about the failure of the
civil rights reforms to remedy the effects of slavery, southern apartheid,
and the nation-wide systematic classification of blacks as inferior humans
that existed since the first blacks were brought to the North American
continent. Wicker provides a diligent survey of the failures of racial
reform politics in the U.S., with particular attention to national policies
related to race during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton periods. He includes
generally competent if brief discussions of the issues he thinks illuminate
the failure of post-Civil Rights racial policies: housing; urban decay;
black poverty and economic inequality; black political representation; the
effect of non-black middle class anxiety about crime on blacks and on the
treatment of blacks in the judicial system; and the near hysterical
response of whites to any form, radical or otherwise, of black nationalism.
These treatments provide a reasonable overview of such issues for the
general reader, though the brevity of the discussions gives the book a
somewhat shallow feel.
But Wicker's purpose is not to be a policy wonk explaining the issues.
Rather, he surveys these problems to illustrate the incomplete results of
efforts to address the effects of slavery and then racism in society in the
United States. Wicker's explanation for this failure is plausible, at
least especially in the early pages of the book. He argues that many
whites assumed that political rights would be sufficient to provide a
"level playing field" for blacks by providing federal enforcement according
to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965. But these
and other measures that were induced by civil rights activism in the early
1960's produced neither substantial integration nor social or economic
parity with whites. These failures and increasing and diversified activism
in black communities fed what Wicker calls the backlash against proactive
measures (such as affirmative action) to "level the playing field" for
blacks. Whites stopped wanting to hear about race, based in part on what
Wicker identifies as a widespread white sentiment that blacks seem lacking
in gratitude for the limited concessions already made by white
institutions. Such sentiment among whites, both northern and southern,
crystalized in George Wallace's 1968 campaign for presidency. Wallace's
appeal to the resentment of disaffected whites marks a watershed in
racialized electoral politics. The long-term result has been a retreat from
aggressive support for civil rights by significant portions of the
electorate, by elected officials, and by the hierarchies and mainstreams of
both political parties. In various ways, the tactics and response to
Wallace has effected every presidential campaign since 1968. This shift in
the brief mainstream support for civil rights enforcement helped maintain,
even worsen, the polarization that characterizes race relations and racial
discourse into the present.
Wicker suggests that the best way out of the dilemmas created by the
failure of racial integration is for blacks to strike out on their own in a
third political party. This would not be a "black party" per se, but more
among the lines of a social democratic party, though Wicker does not use
this term and is frustratingly vague on the particulars of the platform of
such a party. The potential members of this part are minority groups,
"liberals and nonconservatives," "poor whites", and non-voters. In other
words, the mass base of the atrophied left wing of the democratic party,
whose interests have been increasingly neglected in recent years or
deferred altogether. In large part, neglect of their interests by both
parties has led large proportions of these voters to abstain entirely from
showing up on election day.
In its outlines, Wicker's prescription reflects the aspirations and
occasional political fantasies of a broad spectrum of progressives and
leftists in the US for much of contemporary U.S. history. At the heart of
this fantasy is a vision of either deserting the Democratic leaderships or
of overcoming the elitist elements that have maintained sway in the
Democratic party and forging a more substantively progressive or social
democratic party with a base in what we used to call the working class,
bound across racial lines by economic interests.
This strategy exhibits two problems that should be familiar by now.
First, the institutional framework of U.S. politics, with its
constitutional emphasis on winner take all elections and separation of
powers, has evolved in ways that have cemented a two-party system. In
conjunction with these elements, the continuing insistence on having an
essentially money-based electoral system provides substantial barriers to
the inevitably cash-poor, labor intensive party Wicker envisions. In this
regard, it is no surprise that our strongest recent third party
manifestation was the H. Ross Perot mutation. The general point is that
rules and political institutions matter a lot, and they make it extremely
difficult to assemble a viable third party of the character Wicker (and a
wide variety on the American left) would like to see. Arguably, such a
party seems much more likely to incubate on the white Christian right end
of the political spectrum.
A second problem with Wicker's scenario points to larger confusion in his
thinking about race, ethnicity, and identity, and the sticky conundrums
these issues present for New Deal liberal Democrats. Wicker argues that
the "such a new party could build upon predicted demographic change that in
the next century will bring today's minority groups into rough numerical
equality with non-Hispanic whites." A key assumption embedded in this
assessment is that blacks and the numerous ethnic minorities in the U.S.
share the same perceived political interests. The assumption is wrong, and
probably becoming more wrong as time goes on. Not only are their evident
differences in the political positions of different ethnic and racial
groups, there is ample and not surprising evidence of increasing political
differentiation within particular groups. Both types of heterogeneity
among "minority groups" place real limits on their potential cohesion as
some kind of inclusive pan-ethnic, pan-racial group. The political glue
for Wicker's party would need to come from some other ideological or social
The flaws in Wicker's reasoning here, while certainly not pernicious in
intent, point to the most provocative aspects of Wicker's book. Though the
book sets out to diagnose the persistence of fundamental problems of race
relations, the most interesting aspect of the book is the degree to which
he underestimates the complexity of race and racial identities among both
blacks and non-blacks. The book expresses this in a change in the tone of
the book in its later pages. The glass seems to go from half empty to half
full for no explicit reason. Wicker spends several chapters illustrating
the persistent structural inequality in the position of blacks, and the
persistence of both racist actions and white resistance to measures
designed to redress systematic discrimination.
Yet as the book nears its end, Wicker engages in mental and rhetorical
contortions in order to avoid suggesting that the US still exhibits
systematic features that could accurately be described as racist. He writes
that since white animosity toward blacks "may not be racism in the
dictionary sense of an ideology of racial superiority, such as motivated
the German Nazis against the Jews and others," such attitudes qualify as
more benign "prejudice" rather than as racism. After distinguishing
"racial attitudes" in the US from the "ideology" of Nazism, he writes:
"It's commonplace among whites, however, to believe that African-Americans
they know or know about, not the entire race, are less industrious,
responsible, socially accomplished, educated, and perhaps intelligent than
are they and their white friends. Nicholas Lemann sees this pervasive
American attitude as 'prejudice' rather than 'racism,' a view that may give
faint cause for hope.
"In the short run, in daily life, the distinction may make little
practical difference. In the long term, however, prejudice may be
counteracted, if not overcome, though no one examining race in America
could be optimistic about that. The phenomenon seems more stubborn than
vicious." Wicker's good intentions are perhaps in evidence, but they offer
small compensation for his blindness to the fungible nature of racist
thinking. Are we to conclude that because some whites now claim racial
superiority based on "African-Americans they know or know about" rather
than a more overt ideology, that they are no longer systematically racist?
The distinction between Nazism as a formally enunciated ideology and a more
culturally embedded covert racism such as Wicker describes is a useful
distinction. But it is not a distinction between racism and its absence.
Wicker's "prejudiced attitudes" emerge from the assumption that racial
differences determine hierarchies of ability and basic worth, and use this
assumption to make sense of their human relationships. This is indeed a
prejudice in the strict sense -- a racist one.
This is not to say that Wicker is simply a racist in integrationist garb.
Wicker exemplifies the position of many a conscientious white New Deal
liberal wholeheartedly supportive of racial integration and civil rights
guarantees. The point, rather, is that the ambiguity and confusion here
are emblematic of well-intentioned but troubled efforts of whites to
confront the persistent reality of racism, and their desire to find hope
and perhaps even a little cause for comfort. More importantly, there is a
powerful urge to use such a confrontation with their own views on race to
see racism as a problem of errant attitudes rather than broadly and deeply
linked institutions, ideas, and practices. In this sense, Wicker's book
rings very familiar. But for all its virtues as a resume of racial
politics, it ultimately rings hollow.
Whereas Wicker attempts to confront racial dynamics in the US head on,
Marshall Frady uses the story of Jesse Jackson's career as a less frontal
but ultimately more subtle and telling exploration of race in the
contemporary United States. Frady's book succeeds where Wicker's only
rarely (sometimes embarrassingly) treads: Frady portrays the endlessly
complex ways in which racism endures in the cracks and closets of
institutions, and then is expressed in the lives of individuals shaped by
Frady's account of Jackson, without shying away from Jackson's human
flaws, suggests that Jackson's frustrations in the political arena are
inseparably linked to his being black in the United States. Jackson grew
up in the world of southern apartheid, in a barely working-class family in
a small South Carolina town. Frady argues that Jackson's seemingly
relentless public self-confidence and assertiveness, and seemingly endless
capacity to merge compassion with sometimes shameless self-promotion,
enabled him to escape from the poverty that held on to most of his
contemporaries and to become an unique international public figure. But
these same qualities that helped him combat the effects of racism on his
way up worked in conjunction with continuing racism at the national level
to frustrate his political ambitions. As Frady writes near the end of the
Jesse: "And in the circular, bitter calculus of that irony -- that he
could lose, in the wider society, because of what it's taken, exactly
because he is black, to win as much as he has - would lie a more
particularly bitter question: to what degree, in presenting himself as a
contender for a leadership role, did he seem too arrant, to irregular and
theatrical, also simply because he is black?"
Frady subtly intertwines both the effect of a racist society on Jackson's
personality and tactics and the continued influence of race in that
society's reaction to its own product. All this is accomplished without
losing sight of the complexities of Jackson's own background, personality,
and choices. Frady accomplishes his task as a biographer by focusing on
the multiple contradictions driving both Jackson's personality and his
public career. He portrays Jackson as the public epitome of the outsider
who craves and ultimately revels in insider status; as a social activist
with a seemingly irresistible impulse to self-promotion; as a spiritual
crusader deeply implicated in secular politics; as a progressive icon with
deeply conservative impulses and values.
These oppositions and their complex effects are evident both in Jackson's
private life and in the consumption of his political evangelism in the
polity. I recall jackson's appearance on the cover of all of the major
news magazines in the summer of 1988. One cover in particular was
striking. The cover pictured Jackson close-up, preaching with sweat pouring
down his face, his eyes dark and stern, his hand frozen in mid-gesture.
Large letters asked simply, "What does Jesse want?" It took little
imagination to come up with an array of answers that the lurid cover, by
design, evoked: to ruin the Democratic party; to satisfy his own craven
political ambitions; to give them more power. But the most evidently
plausible answer negated the need for the question in the first place: the
man wanted to be the president of the United States of America. Of course,
a man (or woman, for that matter) with Jackson's particular combination of
politics and skin tone evokes anxiety and irrationality ahead of a respect
for the obvious or evident. Jackson's candidacy in 1984 and 1988 evoked a
range of racial and political anxiety, from the reluctance of many black
leaders to enthusiastically support his candidacy, to the constant attempts
of the mostly white Democratic party leadership to keep him away from power
inside the party, to the hundreds of death threats against he and his
But if Jackson was an outsider to the political system, he wasn't without
substantial company. Part of the anxiety generated among elites and white
bigots by the "outsider" Jesse Jackson was that he could demonstrate
substantial popular support. The former were threatened by his potential
to increase participation in the political system, the latter by his
blackness and their failure to acknowledge that Jackson might legitimately
lead non-blacks as well as members of his own racial group. In the end,
the seemingly incongruous elements of Jackson's personality and of his
politics nonetheless resonated among the millions of farmers, progressives,
blue-collar workers, and blacks who voted for him in large numbers. Frady
is particularly fascinating when recounting his travels with Jackson in the
farmbelt during and after his campaigns, and the support he witnessed among
whites in places such as rural Iowa. For all the persistence of racial
animosity, Jackson's success in stitching together a multi-racial coalition
testifies to the potential for redefining prevailing understandings of race
Jackson's fortunes in the U.S. political system are instructive in
considering of Wicker's desire to address the "tragic failure" of racial
integration and justice through a third political party. One of Wicker's
discontents is the reluctance of the Democratic party to enthusiastically
mobilize the very elements to whom Jackson successfully appealed and to
some extent mobilized in the Rainbow Coalition. The Democrats' reluctance
has at times bordered on downright hostility, as when Bill Clinton used a
Rainbow Coalition gathering to strategically and ceremoniously crap on
Jackson via Sister Souljah. This was done in order to demonstrate to
suburbanites all over the country that the "New Democrat" Clinton not
beholden to Jesse Jackson or to blacks. Even after this indignity,
seemingly trapped in the Democratic party, Jackson still campaigned for
Clinton, just as he had campaigned for Mondale and Dukakis before him.
Crass as Clinton and his backers in the Democratic party have been toward
Jackson and blacks in the party generally, Jackson's treatment still does
not conclusively illustrate that Wicker's solution is the best strategy.
Wicker argues that Clinton's poor treatment of Jackson (and Guanier)
suggests that blacks need to "strike out on their own" in order to force
the Democratic Party to chase them. Jackson has occasionally suggested
that he would be willing to do just this, as recently as last year. But
the impression that emerges from Frady's account is that Jackson remains
aware of the substantial obstacles to achieving success with this strategy,
and for better or for worse sees the hierarchy of the Democratic party as
less obstructing than the barriers to the success of a third party.
Jackson of course uses the threat of a third party insurgency to his ends,
but has proved unwilling to follow through at his moments of peak momentum.
The difference between the political calculations of Wicker and Jackson
here result partially from electoral math, partially from an assessment of
how flexible US political institutions are in the face of a racially-tinged
progressive challenge, and, finally, from Jackson's own ambition. The
experience of Jackson's electoral runs suggests that while the potential
for Wicker's coalition exists, this bloc of support may not be as large as
he thinks, and it is difficult both to mobilize and to keep organized and
involved. Voters mobilized by Jackson are crucial as swing votes, but not
determining on their own. Mobilized in 1986, they helped return the Senate
to the Democrats; not mobilized in 1994, Republicans took control of both
House and Senate. Frady's accounts of Jackson's constant hectoring about
the number of voters he registers and mobilizes for the Democrats suggests
that, in the harsh political calculus, he is wedded to spending this
political capital to wedge open space inside the Democratic party. Despite
the resistance Jackson meets inside the Democratic party, and the ability
of forces inside the party to beat him back in the past, he has clearly
concluded that it is not yet strategically sound to abandon the Democratic
party as the institutional vehicle for at least some progressive politics.
How do we assess Jackson's apparent determination to stay inside the
Democratic party? Jackson seems searching for definition, as he was in the
mid-1970's, and as during that period many have commented that perhaps
Jackson's day has passed. But the achievements he has already
accomplished, their consequences, and Jackson's phosphorescent ambition
should not be underestimated. Shirley Chisholm's 1972 run for the
democratic nomination notwithstanding, Jackson almost single-handedly
introduced the country to the reality that a black person might seriously
be a presidential candidate, or president. In some ways, we may not allow
ourselves to be stunned by the enormity of this event in American political
and cultural life, but we should. Twenty years after George Wallace made
his infamous run for the White House, Jesse Jackson was a serious contender
for the Democratic presidential nomination, largely as a result of his
intense sense of mission, his enormous gifts and equally enormous will to
promote himself. As Frady and some of his interviewees observe, Jackson
opened the door through which, much to his chagrin, Colin Powell has been
enthusiastically invited to step. Given that so many have worked to bar
Jackson himself from taking that step, Jackson's cool response to talk of
Powell's candidacy should elicit little surprise. Jackson's own struggles
against and inside the political system greatly enabled the talk of such a
candidacy, while Jackson himself remains a prominent figure yet still
ever-liminal as a candidate.
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