On one level, it is easy to dismiss the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.'s crudely worded metaphorical threat to castrate Barack Obama for supposedly talking down to black people as the raving of an increasingly irrelevant, former big shot suffused with resentment at the rising star who pushed him off stage.
That, after all, is the sort of talk we'd expect from a lynch mob, not a civil rights leader who does not seem to realize that the times have passed him by. Even his son and namesake, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., agrees that his dad is doing more harm these days than good. Pronouncing himself outraged and disappointed by his father's ugly words about Obama, Jackson Jr. issued a statement that, in effect, ordered dear old dad to "keep hope alive" and shut up.
That's good advice, and one can only hope that Jackson Sr. accepts it. But in a deeper sense, his stunningly inappropriate comments symbolize the social, political and psychological vertigo that all of us, and especially black Americans, are experiencing because of Obama's success. We are all, including Obama, in a place we never really thought we would be, and it has knocked us off our feet. We don't know how to act. We don't have a plan. We're searching for our equilibrium. And until we regain our footing, we can expect all sorts of bizarre behavior from people who ought to know better. Hold on to your hat.
We haven't really been in a place this confusing since 1954, when the NAACP's crusade against segregation culminated in the Brown vs. Board decision and the walls came tumbling down. It's fair to say that we were so focused on winning that fight that we weren't prepared for the victory or its aftermath. We've spent nearly 60 years since then trying to figure out what kind of relationship we want to have with America and with each other. For the most part, we, like Jackson Sr., have seen ourselves as outsiders battling for justice and a seat at the table. Our default has been to protest. And while that mindset has served us well, it has, in a flash, been made damn near obsolete by the prospect, even the likelihood, that one of us may soon become the most powerful man in the world. If that happens, how can we seriously argue that we're being held back by anything but the limits we place on ourselves?
That, it seems to me, accounts in part for the frustration some of us are feeling by what we interpret as Obama's move to the center. We are simply not accustomed to one of our own playing real, power politics. Some of us see his call for an expansion of George Bush's half-hearted commitment to faith-based social programs as mere politics, what Jackson Sr. castigated as "talking down to black people." We explain Obama's support for the compromise Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Supreme Court's upholding of a citizen's right to bear arms as attempts to inoculate himself against Republican attacks.
And, of course, they are.
But they, like Obama's Father's Day speech urging black men to take more responsibility for their children, are more than political posturing. They represent the first stirrings of a new consensus that places more emphasis on a public discussion of personal responsibility than on protest, on publicly delving into our own shortcomings and dysfunctional behavior.
There's nothing new about this kind of self-examination, but in the past we've conducted it mainly in private, in barbershops and beauty parlors, and churches. We've bristled when whites in power like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, joined in the critique of, for example, our soaring rate of out-of-wedlock births. We've moaned about the negative consequences of washing dirty laundry in public. But such a self-protective mindset no longer makes sense because Obama is one of us, who has taken part in our private handwringing about the self-inflicted wounds that bedevil segments of the black community. He hasn't said anything most of us haven't heard or said at the dinner table. But now, because Obama is who he is, the whole world is listening in to the conversation.
The attention makes us uncomfortable and disoriented. So does the prospect that one of us might soon be in charge of trying to fix this mess instead of simply complaining about it.
We're not really ready for the day when The Man becomes a black man.
It's a dizzying idea that is going to take some getting used to. And until we do, we'll stumble about, like Jesse Jackson Sr., saying all kinds of crazy things as we slip and slide on the new paradigm.
Jack White is a former columnist with TIME magazine.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.