Sure, Jesse is an old fool who doesn't know how to act. But his latest gaffe shows how none of us is really ready for this moment.
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?
Editor's Note: Jack White is a former columnist with TIME magazine.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with