Eyes Off the Prize

Yes, we should mourn Michael Jackson. But the Congressional Black Caucus needs to focus on more important issues.

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Like millions of others, I’m still deeply moved by the wonderfully rich memorial service for Michael Jackson. But I can’t help but wonder whether Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is doing Michael Jackson, her constituents or black folks a favor when she promises to bring to the floor what will be a controversial resolution deeming Jackson a “national legend … music icon” and “international humanitarian.”

Certainly, Michael was all of that. But he was also a highly controversial figure in the last 20 years of his life. He was embroiled in an ugly trial in which he was charged with child molestation. Jackson was acquitted of those charges, but his increasingly unsteady behavior and horrific appearance, along with his now-apparent addiction to various prescription drugs, left his reputation deeply scarred. As is so often and sadly the case, it was only Jackson’s death that resuscitated the public’s appreciation of his enormous talent and humanitarian efforts.

But the attempt to pass this resolution, which no doubt will be resisted by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who recently derided Jackson as a “pervert,” may do more harm than good. (Given reports of prodigious contributions by Jackson fans to a fund to stop King’s re-election—he may come to wish that he had refrained from trashing the King of Pop.) Although well-meaning, Jackson Lee’s resolution is likely to unleash a debate on the House floor that will only rehash the most troubling parts of Michael Jackson’s biography, banishing the enormous goodwill generated by Tuesday’s memorial service.

More importantly, don’t Rep. Jackson Lee and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have a few other priorities right now? Recently, former U.S. representative Cynthia McKinney was taken into custody by Israeli military officials while she was on a humanitarian mission to provide aid to the ravaged Palestinian citizens in Gaza. Forcibly removed from an aid boat in international waters, McKinney, 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan-MaGuire and others on the boat were held in detention for days. The CBC made no comment, even when asked by reporters.

Discussions over the so-called “public option” in the president’s proposed health care initiative are raging throughout the media, with almost no attention focused on how the proposals currently under consideration are likely to affect African-American patients, doctors and hospitals serving African-American communities. Where is the CBC in the ongoing health care debate?

And another black community newspaper has folded. The Bay State Banner in Boston announced that it will suspend publication. The current financial crisis is closing newspapers all over the country, but the plight of black community newspapers has barely made a blip on the radar of those bemoaning the travails of the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun. But black newspapers are a critical source of information, education and analysis of critical issues affecting the black community. Are there legislative initiatives that can help save these critical resources?

Next week, confirmation hearings will begin for Judge Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no African Americans on the Senate Judiciary Committee—and only one African American in the Senate. (Heaven help us, it’s Roland Burris.) Given the fact that the Senate is virtually a whites-only club, the Congressional Black Caucus should press hard and publicly weigh in with their views on the first Hispanic judicial nominee—especially because much of the Republican strategy to resist her confirmation will focus on condemning Judge Sotomayor for her decision to uphold the effort by the city of New Haven to the promotion of blacks in the city’s fire department. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has taken to posting a “Daily Question for Judge Sotomayor” on his Web site, seeking to outline his plan of attack at next week’s confirmation hearings. It’s a clever organizing and educational tool for anti-Sotomayor folks in Texas. Wouldn’t it be nice if Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee posted “Answers” or “Questions about the Daily Question” on her Web site, to take on her state’s senator and provide alternative account of Judge Sotomayor’s nomination?

I’m not interested in dictating the agenda for Rep. Jackson Lee, nor do I object to acknowledging and honoring Michael Jackson’s extraordinary accomplishments and contribution to the world of music, videos and human rights. But politicians, black politicians especially, do best when they keep their eyes on the prize. There’s plenty of time in the coming year to honor Michael Jackson with a congressional resolution. But Rep. Jackson Lee and the Congressional Black Caucus have more than enough on their plates this summer without hosting a distracting debate about the very complicated life of Michael Jackson.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.

is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.