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Questions About Jesse
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D

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Two questions inevitably crop up every time Jesse Jackson pulls off a diplomatic coup. One is how can he do what presidents, heads of state, and official diplomats can't do? The second is whether what he does is good or bad for African-Americans? The first question is easy to answer. He succeeds precisely because he is not an American or European president, head of state or official diplomat. He has no portfolio, no legal standing, and no defined political agenda. He is an African-American activist and is not seen by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, or Syria's Hafez Assad as an inherent enemy.

When they grant him audiences, favors, and turn over American hostages to him, they can reap PR value, put their best humanitarian face forward, make the U.S. and the Western nations look stupid, and incompetent, and gain a little face in war or foreign policy brinkmanship. Milosevic instantly recognized Jesse's value. In releasing the hostages he hoped to score a few points on the cheap with international and American public opinion. But photo-ops at the Yugoslav's president' palace and Jesse's appeal to "give peace a chance" came dangerously close to putting a stamp of legitimacy on a barbaric regime desperate to wipe the gruesome stain of the rape, pillage and murder of thousands of ethnic Albanians from its murderous hands. The ploy didn't work. Since Jesse's departure from Belgrade NATO and Clinton have rained even more bombs and missiles down on Yugoslav cities and towns to prove that they won't tolerate the meddling of private citizen Jesse into war making and foreign policy.

While many Americans cheer and take pride when Jesse helps to free hostages and talks peace, so does Jesse. It gives him the chance to reassert his credentials as humanitarian, religious leader, and peace advocate. But it also gives him the chance to reassert himself as media hero, and his standing as black America's main man. And this is what makes the second question whether Jesse's forays are good or bad for African-Americans harder to answer. With the perennial problems of crime, drugs, poverty, poor schools, family breakdown, and police abuse continuing to pile high on the door step of the black poor, the need is for committed leaders and organizations with pragmatic, workable programs and strategies who are willing to devote time and attention to deal with these crisis problems. Jesse is not that person. Pick any hot issue: gay rights, farmworkers, striking public employees, global warming, the Olympics, Rodney King, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, the L.A. riots, affirmative action, South Africa, and Haiti, it's a sure bet that he will be there with barely a whistle stop in between.

His modus operandi is always the same. He'll deliver a fiery speech, participate in a quick demonstration or march, do little or no personal organizing, and make a hasty exit. The media gets its soundbite. Jesse gets his reputation as leader and committed activist preserved. Local blacks and political activists get more frustrated and disillusioned when the issue they raise or the injustice they are protesting gets buried when he leaves town. The other problem with Jesse is that when the mantle of "the black leader" is wrapped tight around one man the presumption is that he speaks for all blacks. When the chosen one makes a real or contrived misstep much of the media erroneously or deliberately assumes that all blacks must agree with him. Blacks and "the leader" are blamed for being rash, fool-hardy, irresponsible, and prone to eternally play the race card on every ill. This creates even more bitterness, dashed hopes, and cynicism among many African-Americans.

Not all of this is Jesse's fault. As long as many African-Americans continue to look for a man on the white horse to solve all their problems or tweak the nose of the white establishment they will always be ripe for the inevitable big fall. While Jesse was rightly praised for bringing the boys home getting a handle on the problems of the poor and distressed in Kosovo or America's inner-cities will take more than prayer sessions and chummy chats with dictators. It will take leaders willing to stay with an issue long after the TV cameras depart or never came in the first place.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.
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