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Obama re-admonishes blacks

CAMPAIGN '08

July 15, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

CINCINNATI — Unswayed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's disapproval, Sen. Barack Obama pressed his message Monday that African Americans needed to take more responsibility for their lives and families, a theme that had angered one of the icons of the civil rights movement.

Obama got a standing ovation at the annual NAACP convention here, presenting himself as a symbol of the political power that earlier black leaders had won. Touting the sacrifice of these activists, Obama said their courage had allowed him to "stand before you tonight as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America."

But Obama, in diagnosing conditions in the black community, made it clear that he was prepared to break with the generation of black leadership represented by Jackson. He said that government and business alone couldn't be blamed for the pain suffusing some black neighborhoods, but that black parents needed to show more maturity and demand more from their children.

Parents, Obama said, must provide "guidance for our children."

He advised "turning off the TV set; putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences; helping our children with their homework; setting a good example."

He continued that parents needed to teach "our sons to treat women with respect and to realize responsibility does not end at conception. That what makes a man a man is not the ability to have a child but to raise one."

The largely black crowd roared its approval.

In his implicit criticism that some black men neglect their children, Obama showed he was prepared to endure a breach with his political base. The move could have an upside: White voters might see it as an example of courage.

The moment has a parallel in Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992. Risking a backlash from his black supporters, Clinton criticized what he cast as racially divisive remarks from rap performer Sister Souljah. Clinton's move also created a schism with Jackson.

With Jackson's denunciation of his comments still fresh, Obama could have faced a tepid or hostile response here. But the reception was warm.

Yves Hood, a 32-year-old African American from Austin, Texas, who was attending the convention, said: "It's the right message at the right time. After seeing that it's possible for someone of color to achieve the success he's achieved in the political realm, people are ready to see more African Americans step up and start doing more than what is expected of us. So people are ready to hear that message."

Bill Lynch, a New York campaign strategist, agreed that Obama's message would not hurt his African American support. "I think folks have heard it enough that those who don't like it will hold their quarter on it, and those who agree with him will applaud him," he said.

Obama also raised this theme in a speech on Father's Day at a black church in Chicago. In that forum, he echoed controversial statements by comedian Bill Cosby, lamenting the large numbers of black children living in single-parent households and accusing many fathers of acting "like boys instead of men."

Last week, Jackson lashed out at Obama for those remarks. Whispering to a fellow Fox News television guest in comments caught by a live microphone, Jackson said, "Barack, he's talking down to black people." And then, underscoring his anger, Jackson threatened to harm him.

Jackson, who supports Obama, later apologized. But the hostility in his whispered aside pointed to strains in a generational shift in black leadership.

For Obama, the breach with Jackson could prove helpful, demonstrating his independence from the politics of a black leader who, 20 years ago, was unable to win the broader ethnic and racial appeal that Obama enjoys.

In his address to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Obama made a veiled reference to the flare-up with Jackson. "I know there are some who've been saying I've been too tough talking about responsibility," he said. "But NAACP, I'm here to report I'm not going to stop talking about it."

He suggested that a bargain was needed between the government and the African American community. As president, he said he would work to ramp up investment in neighborhoods, improve schools and find jobs for the unemployed. At the same time, African Americans must exercise more responsibility "in our own lives," he said.

If Obama's message deviates from that of Jackson, he does not seem to have suffered a backlash in the black community. A recent Gallup poll showed that 90% of black Democrats reported being "more enthusiastic" about voting this year than is normally the case. And 59% of blacks said that an Obama presidency would amount to one of the most important advances for African Americans in the last 100 years.

What's more, Obama has proved more effective in delivering a message of personal responsibility than Cosby, said Silas Lee, a New Orleans pollster.

To many African Americans, Cosby "came off as scolding" when he made some of the same points years ago, Lee said. But Obama's less confrontational style "doesn't arouse the fears of people, or doesn't fit into misguided stereotypes that people may have," said Lee, who has polled African Americans for Bill Clinton, John F. Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's been a fairly constant theme," he said, "and he hasn't had any negative repercussions on it."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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