Reconsidering Jesse Jackson: The Caricature, The Person, The Politician – Part 1

This post, written by Tim Lacy, was originally published on the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Jesse Jackson, July 1983

Today’s post begins a four-part argument about the history and significance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., as a political activist and thinker. My thesis is this: A full reconsideration of the politics, ideology, and political philosophy of the 1970-2000 period must involve a new, long, and serious study of Jesse Jackson.

The necessity of this became apparent, to me, after a close reading Jason Stahl’s wonderful new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (Carolina, 2016). To be clear, Stahl doesn’t place any special emphasis on Jackson’s life or work. Rather, as Stahl’s narrative moves through the late 1980s and early 1990s, covering the rise of the New Democrats, Jackson’s role therein, as a caricature and punching bag, is indirect but nonetheless crucial. This leads me believe that Jackson’s symbolism, person, actions, and thought are due for a thorough reconsideration. Today’s post and my three after will, I hope, provide some seeds for that reconsideration.

I. The Caricature

If you’re still reading this post after that opening—meaning, if you weren’t immediately turned off by mention of the Jesse Jackson’s name or the thought of studying him—you weren’t raised in the same kind of racist thought environment as I was.

Stahl’s book helped me better understand why my whitewashed, working-class, Middle-western upbringing consistently caused me to dismiss Jackson as a politician worth serious consideration. To begin, I’ve never been able to place Jackson as a political thinker, or even as a worthy tactician, in our wars of ideology. This is because, in part, he was effectively constructed out of scene. That was accomplished not only by my Midwestern peers, exemplars, and family, but by the Clintons, New Democrats, and other white politicians. Those latter “Mason-Dixoncrats,” as Jackson termed them and as Stahl reminds us, thought of Jackson as the leader of a much-reviled coalition of “liberal fundamentalism.”1

By the time I first gained some political consciousness, during the 1988-1992 period, especially during that highly contentious 1992 presidential election (which “woke” me on the wrong side of the proverbial political bed), Jackson had already been pushed off the national stage.

Having been pushed, it’s not as if a person like me would have taken Jackson seriously. My folk never had. To me and others (a significant demographic apparently, in retrospect, given how easily he was dispatched by the Clinton campaign later), Jackson neither represented nor symbolized anything positive. I feel terrible and ashamed for what follows, but honesty demands some description, or confession, of how I viewed him symbolically. I offer this teenaged and early twenties perspective to provide a view from the cheap seats—a view that helps explain, perhaps, why elite Democrats from the 1980s and 1990s wanted to separate themselves from Jackson.

As structured by my family and the print news, Jackson was, simply put, a clownish figure. To my highly ignorant teenage and early twenties mind, he seemed, ironically, a kind of cleaned-up “articulate” figure out of a 1970s blaxploitation film: a slick rhyming hustler on the national political stage. Jackson was most certainly taken seriously as a politician in 1980s-era Midwestern urban Democratic venues, but in the suburbs, small towns, and country I wonder if he was practically invisible except as a caricature. His “Rainbow Coalition” was an urban phenomenon, and that scene, in relation to my political ignorance, originated in hellish, declining, crime-filled port cities of prostitution. Urban America brought the rest of us HIV-AIDS, high taxes (they depended on us, we believed), pornography, pimps, secularism, homocide, gays, lesbians, blacks, browns, and political corruption. When you left for “the city,” wherever that city was located and whatever its own nature and history, you became a Dreiser-esque “Sister Carrie” figure (i.e. headed for corruption). Jackson was “their” politician, and that’s how he existed in view of my race-unconscious, white-tinted glasses. Little did I realize then how I was the intellectual clown—the one whose views were ignorant in relation to the most important issue of the twentieth century.

In my journey toward race consciousness, at that point and apart from specific views of Jackson, my ideologies were “tolerance” and “colorblindness,” at best. They were more advanced than most of my families’ views, but they were deficient nonetheless. Now I’d call them racist. The next set of scales would fall off my blurry clownish eyes a few years later, after a period of “autodidactical” immersion in the humanities (i.e. history and great books) and the acquisition of a super smart, racially-sensitive Asian-Indian girlfriend. But that is a story for another time. Even with my progression of thought, Jackson himself never received my thorough sympathy and attention until very recently.

I must stop here today. It’s not that my anecdotal experiences are the end of how Jackson has been caricatured. Rather, I think a focus on Jackson’s person, or his biography, helps round out how others have caricatured him. After that I will consider his explicitly national political work in two parts, which fully explain why Jackson has been caricatured and needs to be reconsidered through a better contextualization of his person, thought, and political work.

Tim Lacy is an educator and historian whose scholarly specialties are intellectual history, cultural history, and the history of education. He recently finished a book titled The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013, and is working on a second manuscript about ‘great books cosmopolitanism’ before embarking on a larger project about ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Follow him on Twitter @t_lacy.

  1. Jason Stahl, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 141, 146. You can read more of Stahl’s work herehere, and here.
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Comments on “Reconsidering Jesse Jackson: The Caricature, The Person, The Politician – Part 1

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    Intriguing. Jackson as a social activist and political organizer are extremely underrated in the mainstream culture and always has been. The outright dismissal and hostility that the conservative culture engages in, and the grudging hesitancy that defines many of the (predominately white) mainline Democrats regarding Jackson has long been a reason why many black progressives don’t identify with the hyper-centrist culture of self-described liberals and moderates. Issues that directly affect blacks and other racial minorities are not really respected, and the activists who articulate these issues are routinely dismissed or given a threadbare platform. Delving deep into the structural deficiencies that have led to urban America having the crises it faces isn’t a priority for the self-congratulatory centrists. Defending white, suburban comfort trumps all.

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      Christopher: Thanks for the comment. The next posts in the series (esp. 2 and 3) get to Jackson’s work as an activist, social organizer, and politician. With this one I was concentrating on the caricature, starting with my own unenlightened and hostile as a youth. And “centrism” is dealt with in the final post, from the POV of the DLC. Thanks for reading. – TL

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    This is so necessary.

    It’s interesting to read you say “Stahl’s book helped me better understand why my whitewashed, working-class, Middle-western upbringing consistently caused me to dismiss Jackson as a politician worth serious consideration. ” I’m from a black, working-class, Midwestern upbringing, and I think we’re around the same age. My earliest political memory is of Jesse Jackson leading a protest march of UAW workers through my small Indiana GM-factory town during the recession of the early 80s. Through all of the caricatures and character assasination (some of which I ended up buying into), that memory always kept me from dismissing him.

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      Thanks David. If my hometown and surrounding areas had been more diverse (or what diversity existed had been embraced), I might’ve obtained that same modicum of respect as you. My family didn’t help with perceptions either, sadly.

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