This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 11, 2008 - The recent controversy regarding the Rev. Jesse Jackson's comments directed at Sen. Barack Obama along with the larger commentary drive home the complexities of the various levels of racism. If we fail to recognize these complexities, we miss the real issue at hand: Racism is not one-dimensional, rather it exists on individual, cultural and institutional levels.
Essentially, Jackson feared that the tone of Obama's message - highlighting personal responsibility - would overshadow the collective responsibility of the government. It's the age-old debate of where to focus our attention: on individual or institutional matters. Some have written that the statements highlight a "divide" in the Black community. Rather than a divide, these perspectives represent pieces of the larger web of racism.
It's not either/or, it's both/and.
Obama has a point. Institutional barriers have been and need to continue to be removed, but that does not take the place of individual action.
Jackson has a point. There are institutional - or structural, as Dr. King would call them - disparities that are not caused by individual actions (e.g. over-representation of Black students in schools that lack resources and credentialed teachers relative to the average public school).
They are coming at similar issues from different angles. Far from divided, these assertions are interconnected. Take education, for example: Even if we rise to the occasion as a collective entity to provide access to equal public education, each student still has to be personally accountable and engage in that education. Failings at one level could be exacerbated by the other, but broad-reaching success needs movements on both fronts.
Individualism alone will not solve the problems of the Black community nor will the government. I do not think it furthers the discussion on race to blast Obama (or Bill Cosby) for encouraging accountability, nor is it fair to dismiss Jackson (or the Rev. Al Sharpton) for pointing out the institutional racism that has perpetuated disparities.
Some have urged Jackson to step down or asserted that his time has passed. Even if Jackson never said another word, the institutional racism that he so persistently points out would not disappear. Perhaps that is why some would like him to be quiet. If we only focus on individual responsibility, this conversation about race gets a great deal more manageable.
We get uncomfortable when systemic, long-standing inequalities are highlighted. We long to believe the myth of meritocracy that we promote as a nation. We would rather believe that if you work hard, you will succeed while turning a blind eye to the reality that the mantra is not equally applied (starting with the disparities in infant mortality).
I actually find more to be disturbed about in Jackson's apology than in his initial comments. In his press conference, he seems to suggest that his comments would be less hurtful to Obama because they were made in a one-on-one interaction rather than a public forum.
I'm not convinced that I would be comforted by the knowledge that someone saves their offensive comments for private conversation. But, perhaps, that's a larger discussion of overt versus covert discrimination or even still the cultural acceptance for holding such contradictions (e.g. as long as you keep your biases private, you won't be called to task).
Fighting racism requires that we recognize the relevance in addressing both the individual and the institution while also holding each other accountable for our actions. We miss the opportunity to have true dialogue when we force comments into camps. Our sound-bite culture seems to have limited our ability to tolerate complexity; oversimplifying issues inherently filters out those nuances.
Obama and Jackson are not divided. Their comments are as interlinked as the discussion on alternative fuel sources and decreasing consumption when addressing climate change.
Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.