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A week ago today in Brunswick, Ga., a 17-year-old African-American named Demarquis Elkins intentionally shot and killed a 1-year-old white Georgia boy in his stroller after robbing and shooting his mother.
On social media sites, people wondered out loud when President Barack Obama would denounce this outrage as he did after the Newtown shooting or, more relevantly, as he did after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin a year ago in Florida,
As to “when,” the most likely answer is “never.” As to “why,” the answer is a little more complicated. During his 2008 campaign, Obama showed signs of addressing America’s most vexing domestic problem, black crime and the fatherlessness that has spawned it.
On Father’s Day, June 15, 2008, Obama took his campaign to the 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God in the South Side of Chicago. His message was unequivocal. The New York Times took a day off from worrying about the separation of church and state and headlined its article on the talk, “Obama sharply assails absent black fathers.”
To murmurs of approval from the almost entirely black congregation, Obama preached, “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many father are also missing.” Lest the listeners think Obama was speaking in general, he added, “Nowhere is it more true than in the African-American community.”
Obama then spelled out the consequences, including the fact that boys who grow up in fatherless homes are “20 times more likely to end up in prison.” Said Obama harshly of absentee fathers: “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
In most quarters, Obama’s talk was well received. Said one black woman in the YouTube comment section, punctuation be damned, “He kept it real all of those other so called black leaders never touched this subject about fatherless homes reason why one jesse jackson was one of those fathers.”
Jesse Jackson was indeed one of those fathers. As late as 2012, his former mistress, Karin Stanford, was still hectoring him for child support for Ashley, their celebrated love child.
Jackson took Obama’s comments as an insult, both personally and professionally. A few weeks later, awaiting a remote interview with Fox News, Jackson made his feelings known on a hot mike.
“I want to cut his nuts out,” Jackson was widely reported as saying. “Barack, he is talking down to black people.” Almost universally, the media edited out the last part of Jackson’s comment, “telling ni–ers how to behave.” But Obama got the message.
Suzanne Goldenberg, reporting for Britain’s left-leaning Guardian, did a better job than most in the American media of assessing the political ramifications of Jackson’s remarks, not so much for Jackson, as for Obama.
She cited Jackson’s various apologies and his plea that Obama “represents the redemption of our country,” but her headline caught the dynamic behind the dust-up: “Jackson gaffe turns focus on Obama’s move to the right.”
Goldenberg raised the question that many on the left had been asking, “What has happened to Obama since he won the Democratic nomination?”
As she noted correctly, Obama’s focus on individual responsibility upset those on the left who “hold government policies to account for the impoverishment of African-American families,” Jackson chief among them.
Although Goldenberg did not go into detail, she raised a secondary issue that most in the America media chose not to explore, specifically “Obama’s place in the African-American community.”
In his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama related his own quest to discover “a workable meaning for his life as a black American.” This did not come easy to him.
When he left his white mother and grandparents behind in Hawaii for college in Los Angeles, he knew no more about African-American culture than what he had seen on TV. He described himself accurately as “a would-be black man.”
For all of his seeming gaffes, Jackson had hit Obama where he was most vulnerable – his standing as an authentic African-American. Obama never felt secure in that identity.
Jesse Jackson had no such issues. He walked the walk, including the legendary 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. By contrast, when Obama spoke at Selma in 2007, he did so in faux preacher cadence and contrived a story about how the march inspired his parents’ romance so grotesquely false that the New York Times almost noticed.
In fact, while Jackson was confronting angry white state troopers in Alabama, the 3-year-old Obama was collecting seashells with his white grandfather in Waikiki.
“So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama,” Obama preached. “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama.”
This fantasy worked well enough on liberal white America, but Obama could not fool himself, and he certainly could not fool Jackson.
After Jackson punched back, Obama never again made as hard-hitting a jab at the heart of the problem afflicting black America as he did in his Father’s Day 2008 speech.
And do not expect him to do so in the future. Aging clown or not, Jesse Jackson still frightens him more than Rush Limbaugh.