HIS voice hoarse, the Rev. Jesse Jackson broaches a subject he has broached, time and again, throughout his life: racial injustice in America.
Here in a back office at the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in suburban Maryland, minutes before addressing the congregation, it is clear that Mr. Jackson's message is, once more, at the swirling center of national debate.
"Race is a source of American shame," he says. "It's the great sin of our culture. People are afraid of it because we engaged in the ungodly act of subjugating a race of people for 250 years. We built our culture on a premise of race that is ungodly."
But while race can be an embarrassing subject between blacks and whites, Jackson makes a distinction between its social and political faces.
"Race is not the problem," he says, "it's racism."
This is an important point in understanding Jackson and his place among the new constellation of black leadership. As some black leaders, like the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, embrace the concept of black self-segregation, Jackson maintains that the problems facing the black community can only be solved by reforming the structure of mainstream American society from within.
"How many of you are over the age of 18 and are not registered to vote?" he asks the Ebenezer congregation just moments after taking the podium. As a sprinkle of hands rise meekly, Jackson points them to a table where members of his Rainbow Coalition stand with a stack of voter registration forms.
"I better see some more hands," he says with his dimpled grin, "You don't want to lie in church."
As his speech resumes, Jackson outlines three priorities for black Americans: personal responsibility, public policy, and protective laws. Of paramount importance, he says, is participation in the political process.
"You throw a food stamp down [at the grocery counter] but you won't throw a vote down," he says. While it's easy to see that food stamps have an intrinsic value, he adds, it's harder to see what a vote does. Still, he reminds the audience, "food stamps come from the vote; the vote doesn't come from food stamps."
How is the system unjust? Jackson compares America to a car so out of alignment that one tire keeps rubbing against the wheel well and popping. Instead of fixing the alignment, the driver keeps changing the tire.
"Since the tire's black," he says in a voice thick with irony, "there must be something wrong with the tire."
But Jackson does believe in many ways race relations are improving, "because of associations," he says. "Personal relations are better because we share playing fields and we share neighborhoods. The causes of racism are structural, not personal or anecdotal."