By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Weekly Commentary | Chicago Sun-Times
“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on,” goes the refrain of a famous song from the civil rights movement. We marched for freedom — for new laws that would end segregation, guarantee equal rights, enforce voting rights, and provide affirmative actions to help correct decades of being locked out or left out. We couldn’t let lunatic sheriffs or Klan rallies or jail distract us. We had to keep our eyes on the prize and hold on.
That advice applies today where public expression of racial animus can distract from the far more serious legal reverses equal rights has suffered.
First we had the rancher and conservative folk hero Cliven Bundy embarrassing himself and his right-wing allies with his foolishness about “the Negro,” suggesting that African Americans might have been “better off as slaves.”
Bundy dismissed blacks as “on government subsidy.” This from a man who had fed his cows off federal land without paying grazing fees for decades, a “government subsidy” he has no intention of repaying. Then we had the tape of the loathsome and unprintable rant of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his girlfriend, who had posted a photo on Instagram of herself with Magic Johnson, “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” he said. When she says she admires Magic, Sterling tells her to admire him privately, “but don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.” Sterling, who has a bad reputation for racism, didn’t deny making the statement, only stating that the remarks aren’t “consistent with” his views.
The views of these two clowns are generating a flood of press, TV commentary, satire, late night humor and more. They should be dealt with. Sensibly, leaders of the right — at least in the guise of Fox News and Senator Rand Paul — seem to be abandoning Bundy. Leading NBA figures — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, Doc Rivers and many more — stepped up to denounce Sterling and urge the NBA to act.
It is important that these statements be challenged. But what Sterling or Bundy say or believe doesn’t much matter in the scheme of things. There will always be people scarred by racist attitudes. We have to keep our eyes on the prize.
And that is what is happening to the law. The gang of five conservative justices on the Supreme Court has disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, making prior review more difficult. This comes as right-wing governors and legislators are passing harsh laws designed clearly to make voting harder — limiting when the polls are open, demanding official ID, purging voter files, abandoning same day registration, outlawing voting on Sunday, when black churches could organize parishioners to take their “souls to the polls.”
The Supreme Court majority is continuing to roll back affirmative action, most recently endorsing a state ban on affirmative action in Michigan. The inevitable result is that African-Americans will have less access to higher education, and a harder time getting through previously locked doors. Affirmative action, ironically, was the mildest reform measure. It was proposed instead of reparations and instead of quotas. Where African-Americans had been locked out of colleges, factory floors or executive suites, where the informal networks of association and advantage excluded them, affirmative steps had to be taken with real effect to open doors.
In Washington and state legislatures, the assault on the safety net and on opportunity continues. Twenty-four states have refused to expand Medicaid even though the federal government will pay all the costs in the first years. People of color are disproportionately the victims. Republicans just passed a budget out of the House that targets more than two-thirds of its drastic cuts from programs for poor and low-wage workers. Education and training will take a big hit. Pell grants get cut. And if they have their way, in 10 years, 40 million people would be deprived of health insurance — from repealing Obamacare, privatizing Medicare and gutting Medicaid.
Policing the remarks of the likes of Bundy and Sterling is necessary. We don’t want openly racist views to be acceptable in this society. But we should not focus only on two nutty postmen and lose sight of what’s going on at the post office. Bundy and Sterling embarrass themselves. The Supreme Court and Congress are making changes in the law that will deprive millions of opportunity and equal justice. We should keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on.