Obama and the Representation
of Captured Groups
ON A NOVEMBER NIGHT filled with indelible moments, the sight of Jesse Jackson with tears streaming down his face as he stood amidst tens of thousands of Barack Obama supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park was particularly poignant and dripping in historical symbolism. Jackson would say the next day that his tears were for Obama’s “ascension into leadership, and the price that was paid to get him there.”1 But as a mere spectator standing in the crowd, Jackson’s emotions could well have been more mixed. After all, although he was one of the “shoulders of giants” that Obama declared he was standing on as he pursued the presidency, a person who twenty years prior had so energized black voters with his dramatic run for the Democratic party nomination, and a person who established many of the foundations for a future African American candidate to successfully run for the presidency, he and Obama had been consistently at arm’s length throughout the campaign.2
Part of the distance between the two might have been generational. Obama is thought to symbolize a new era of black electoral politics, with different aspirations and agendas, different historical opportunities, and different understandings of the dynamics between race and power. Whereas Jackson was born, raised, and educated in the segregated South
For helpful critiques of earlier versions of this afterword, I thank Michael Brown, Tom Kim, Chuck Myers, Sarah Staszak, Al Tillery, Dorian Warren, and Kim Williams.
1 “Reverend Jesse Jackson Says His Tears for ‘Martyrs and Murdered Whose Blood Made Last Night Possible.’” Interview by Michel Martin, Tell Me More, NPR News, November 5, 2008. Found at http://www.npr.org/about/press/2008/110508.JesseJackson.html.
2 Jackson even had a hand in a specific provision of the Democratic party’s nomination rules that ended up benefiting Obama in his quest for the nomination over Senator Hillary Clinton. In the aftermath of his failed run for the Democratic nomination in 1988, Jackson successfully altered the party’s nomination rules to allow candidates to receive delegate allocations that were proportional to their vote shares. Jackson wanted his vote totals to amount to an equal percentage of party delegates, and in negotiations with Michael Dukakis he achieved a commitment from the party to change the rules in exchange for his support for the Democratic nominee. In 2008, had it not been for this rule change, Hillary Clinton would likely have been the party nominee. Proportional representation hurt her delegate outcome dramatically in large states like California, where a winner-take-all system would have given her an additional 150 delegates from that state alone. See Caitlyn Dwyer, “A Different Nominee? The Role of the Rules in the 2008 Primaries” (paper presented at Midwest Political Science Association, April 2–5, 2009).