Surprisingly, most of the media attention focused upon Jesse Jackson's decision to seriously consider running for president in 1984 has avoided perhaps the most interesting aspect of that novel effort. Aside from a few references in Time magazine's cover story on Jackson, relatively little attention has been given to the reasons for the rather tepid response of the black political establishment to this latest quest for black political power. Moreover, even less has been written about the stark contrast between the coolness of the black political establishment's reaction and that of blacks at the grass-roots level.
While there are many blacks at all levels with bona fide reservations about a 1984 black presidential bid in the person of Jesse Jackson, by and large the dissenting black leaders are not among them. It is true that some leaders have publicly expressed their doubts about a Jackson candidacy in terms of its potential damage to the ultimate goal of defeating Ronald Reagan, or Jackson's well-known penchant for grabbing headlines, or even his allegedly notorious distaste for ''following through'' on a good idea. Yet if one reads between the lines or listens closely to their private complaints, one senses that there is really something deeper that troubles them about Jesse Jackson.
In a recent New York Daily News article, much was made of the reluctance of New York City black leaders to openly support a prospective Jackson campaign. Most of the article focused on presumed problems Jackson's Middle East views would cause them in seeking Jewish support for a black mayoral campaign in 1985. Only Basil Paterson, the likely black mayoral candidate, publicly expressed probable support for a Jackson campaign. One by one the Harlem establishment expressed caution toward such an effort, and United States Rep. Charles Rangel even went so far as to dismiss Jackson's competence to address foreign-policy questions, given his theological background. Aside from the obvious point that Reagan's thespian background apparently has not fatally affected his competence in foreign affairs, one initially might be puzzled as to why Rangel felt compelled to make the point. However, upon reflection, his response was predictable.
Rangel's excessive deference to the presumed concerns of the Jewish community perfectly symbolizes the conflict between Jackson and the black political establishment. From the perspective of the vast majority of working-class and underclass blacks, it seems as though their leadership has deferred to everyone but them.
In a slightly different context, the NAACP's Ben Hooks has also lost no opportunity to caution against a black presidential bid, except when promoting his own prospective bid in 1988, as he did in a recent interview with syndicated columnist Tony Brown. Regrettably, the Hooks analogy perhaps best explains the muted hostility of establishment blacks toward Jackson.
One of the cruelest tragedies of the black experience in America is the continuing legacy of perceived inferiority, or, clinically speaking, sociological self-hatred. The dialectic of white supremacy-black inferiority has been so pervasive in American life that the stigma of inferiority still attaches to blacks even if only in vestigial form.
Many prominent political blacks resent Jackson's arrogance in presuming to aspire to the nation's highest office, while at the same time envying the self-confidence which permits him to authentically speak for blacks collectively. It is this sense of authenticity which gives Jackson his edge or advantage over many of his contemporaries.
The plight of black leadership is indeed an unenviable one, requiring as it does some measure of deference to a nonblack majority while seeking to address the urgent needs of an oppressed minority. Yet to the extent that the aims of Jesse Jackson's quixotic campaign are to increase minority participation in the electoral process; to broaden the political agenda so that it encompasses the legitimate concerns of the dispossessed and disenfranchised; and, not so coincidentally, to raise the self-esteem of a people historically and systemically bereft of self-worth, it certainly seems worthy of support at all levels - and not just from blacks.