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Playboy Interview: Jesse Jackson
  • October 13, 2011 : 20:10
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Playboy: The idea of class war, hot or cold, has always been associated with the theories of socialism. Do you think of yourself as a socialist?

Jackson: I adhere to the ideals of my religion -- that the earth is the Lord's and its food was intended for all them. The trend of the world today -- in Sweden, Guinea and Britain, for example -- is toward some form of democratic socialism, where men eat because the ground is fertile. America stands in conflict with that trend by allowing a few people to control and distribute the food, rather than letting people eat because they are living. The truth, of course, is that this same America, where socialism is such a dirty word, is already operating in a sophisticated state of socialism for the rich, while the poor live in a crude state of classic capitalism.

Playboy: Please explain that.

Jackson: The people in this society who follow the Protestant ethic and work long hours by the sweat of their brow are the poor. They work at the hardest jobs and often still don't get enough money to pass the poverty level. Even when they try to break out, it's an attempt to start a street-corner business, where the rules of classic capitalism prevail. The poor storekeeper, for example, doesn't control his market through advertising; he can't float a bond issue and use other people's money to run his business. But the rich man has socialism. We've got 6,536 farmers in this country who receive $25,000 not to work. That's socialism. The campuses expand, chopping pieces of land out of black neighborhoods, with the financial help of the National Education Act. Even wealthy schools for rich men's sons are state supported. The interstate highway program, none of which benefits those who can't afford a car, is 90 percent federally financed. There wouldn't be a trucking industry without government help. The list is endless and includes the oil companies and their depletion allowance, the railroads, the airlines and airports, the power companies. The rich talk about tax shelters and tariff protections, while the poor talk about sweat and blood.

Playboy: But isn't welfare a form of socialism for the poor?

Jackson: As it now stands, welfare is a form of humiliation. It is demeaning and dehumanizing. Men use money; welfare recipients use stamps. Men have privacy; welfare recipients have no privacy and can be visited any time of day or night. Their most intimate relationships can be called into question by people who are indifferent to them. Instead of abusing the poor, this nation has to understand that the welfare recipient is a product of the success of our economy. The unskilled black man whose job has been lost to technology today will be joined shortly by the unskilled white man whose job will be lost to the next technological advance. Either we see these men as having been freed by technology, perhaps to fulfill a creative role, or we see these men as having worked hard only to find themselves enslaved in poverty by the same technology. Whichever perspective one has, we must evolve a subsidy that will preserve these precious human lives, not destroy them as welfare has.

Playboy: Were you encouraged by President Nixon's new welfare proposals?

Jackson: I was thoroughly discouraged. I watched Nixon the night he delivered that welfare address. My anger was tempered only by my incredulity at the immensity of his con job. He lied for nearly an hour and didn't even crack a smile. He asked the country to think of him as a great humanitarian, but we weren't fooled. Behind all those promises is the single fact that the states are going to retain control of most of the Nixon program. When the states had the power, black people couldn't vote, couldn't ride in the front of a bus, couldn't drink from any public water fountain, couldn't use any john they wanted. Now Nixon says to Thurmond and Stennis, "Take care of them poor folks." Right this minute, there are 40 states violating the welfare laws. We don't need a redistribution of welfare-disbursement stations in this country; we need a redistribution of wealth. The President challenged the poor to go to work, without saying what he would do to improve the lot of those who can't work. I'll be encouraged when the President challenges the rich to show their humanity and grant to the poor their basic rights as human beings.

Playboy: The white lower middle class is becoming quite vocal about its opposition to welfare in any form for those they characterize as too lazy to work. What's your reaction?

Jackson: The fact is that the poor work the hardest and have always done so. We made cotton king, cooked other people's food when we had none of our own, stooped to clean bathrooms. Now we are unskilled, because the schools don't teach us, because less money is spent on the education of blacks than is spent on whites. A state of despair has set in for those in the black community who have been told no too often, and perhaps they can never be healed. When white people say they know a man on welfare who is too lazy to work, I say that may be so. But the man they see is a dried-up prune. I ask them, "Did you see that man when he was a boy? Did you see him when he said, 'Momma, do you have a piece of bread?' Did you see him before hope was snuffed out by despair?" The white middle class is paying less tax money to support welfare mothers than it is to support the farm industry. I don't hear them complaining about that. The bulk of their tax money goes to subsidizing the rich and fighting wars abroad -- wars fought by the sons of welfare mothers, not by the middle-class kids who go to college. The middle class invests in America with its tax dollars, but the poor have to invest their lives.

Playboy: Is it possible to raise a family on the funds provided by welfare? Many claim it isn't.

Jackson: Let me put it this way: If I give you 22 cents for a meal, you know pretty well what you're going to get to eat. I thought I knew what poverty was all about until I went on our hunger campaign. I saw children eating red clay. Doctors call it pica when people who don't get sufficient food eat things that have the appearance of food. I saw a mother give her child saltines and onions for breakfast and send her off to school on that. I saw a white mother with four kids, one of whom, a boy, had leukemia. He drank all the milk the family was allotted on a food-stamp supplement, and it wasn't enough even for him. She took him everywhere in a little wagon, the kind kids play with. He was frail and helpless, and the mother was exhausted; the entire family looked bloodless and frightened, as if they would never have a moment's joy. I can understand why they might feel that way, living as they must with the fact that there is a ceiling on the welfare allotment but no ceiling on the rent or the food prices or the amount of tragedy a family can suffer. The insufficient welfare funds are especially damaging to babies. Eighty percent of the brain develops during the three months immediately before birth and the first three years of life. The minds of welfare children, who cannot get enough to eat, are stricken early.

Playboy: Why don't welfare allowances provide adequate support?

Jackson: Welfare allotments tend to be about one third of the minimal standard of living as defined by the government. In Texas, New York and California this year, even that meager appropriation was cut. Furthermore, rents and food prices are higher in poor areas than in middle-class areas, so the poor must spend more, even though they have less. The result of this deprivation is that the black child goes to school without breakfast, cannot afford lunch at school and cannot look forward to a decent supper at night. His hunger is such a distraction that he is not motivated to learn. All of these elements combine to place him farther and farther behind in school. He has no goals, no hero images, no sense of purpose or identity. He is physically weaker than his white contemporaries and probably sickly, because he doesn't get medical care.

Playboy: Earlier, you referred to the dominance of professional sports by black athletes. That doesn't fit with the image of physical weakness you just presented.

Jackson: Some men will thrive even in a prison camp, so it isn't surprising that you'll find an occasional black youth who overcomes his poverty. But the important reason for the dominance of black athletes is that a high proportion of black men -- both those who ate well and those who didn't -- directed themselves toward athletics because the field was more open to them than any other. More blacks tried to be boxers because there was no point in trying to be a bookkeeper or a mathematician. A black man whose mind might have had great aptitude for math wouldn't have been trained by a ghetto school. It made more sense for him to try to be a ballplayer, even a third-rate one, because it was so unlikely that he'd have a fair chance to be anything else.

Playboy: A persistent part of the white stereotype of the black man is that he runs faster and jumps higher than whites. But some anthropologists have claimed recently that there actually are genetic differences between white and black. Will this new evidence worsen the relationship between white and black?

Jackson: It won't affect us. The black man has never needed to believe that there are differences; that's a white man's problem. Our natures are the same. Our urges and drives as people are the same. Mankind has one father, and that's time. It has one mother, and that's nature. Both of these life processes are sound and consistent and universal. The third process is brotherhood, which is all messed up, because white folks have tried to withdraw from it. The eternal existential dilemmas of fate and death, guilt and condemnation, emptiness and meaninglessness are the same for all men. But our relationship, based upon distorted information peddled by white folks who reject the humanity of others, has been perverted.

Playboy: What are the psychological and cultural differences between white and black, if any?

Jackson: Slavery is our cultural heritage and it should have been a thoroughly destructive one. But instead of seeing ourselves as slaves from Africa brought over to serve the lusts and wants of white people, a providential way of seeing our slavery is that we are missionaries sent from Africa by God to save the human race. Who else is in a position so close to the Pentagon, the greatest threat to the world's existence? Who else is in a position to literally redirect the most powerful economy on earth? Who else in the world is in the enemy's kitchen and his schoolroom? We are, perhaps, the only ethnic group in the world that has the power to redirect the destiny of white America. Neither China nor Russia nor France nor England could do it. I don't look for white folks to give me any direction. My experience has taught me that white people are spiritually impotent, by and large, because all they've really produced is a lot of goods and services and a lot of death.

Playboy: That's a sweeping condemnation. Would you say that the late Norman Thomas, to name one of many men, was spiritually impotent?

Jackson: No, he was certainly a spiritual man, and you could find others. The point is that such a man is not representative of the white American culture. In fact, the secondary roles that genuinely humane white people are forced to play is indicative of what I'm trying to say. Black society chooses to be led by its prophets, white society by its hustlers. The men of highest sensibility in white society find themselves rebelling from it -- just as blacks must rebel.America is known not for her capacity to love and heal but for her capacity to organize and kill. America has an aristocratic military definition of man. American men judge themselves by their wealth, status and power, not by their intelligence, compassion or creativity. That's why the idea of looking for racial equality here is a farce. To become equal to white folks would be to become part of the greatest tradition of killing in the history of the world.

Playboy: That might sound to some not only like a blatant overstatement but like a proclamation of black supremacy.

Jackson: I don't know what it sounds like, but I know what the record will indicate. There is no evidence of Africa invading Europe, of her early advanced civilizations killing or enslaving other nations. Historically, blacks have not been the aggressors in war, not even here in America. We did not mobilize to go to war for our long-overdue justice, but there have been wars of injustice waged against us. The profound men in this culture have been black -- Frederick Douglass, for example, who was more pertinent than Lincoln on the subject of slavery and the liberation of mankind. And the crusader for justice in Mississippi was Medgar Evers, not Jim Eastland. In New York, Malcolm was pertinent, not Nelson Rockefeller, who did not bat an eye when he approved the welfare cuts. The one who cried out for peace in the world and meant it was not the white leader, President Johnson; it was the black leader, Dr. King. During the past 15 years, Dr. Abernathy has been more relevant than any American President. Blacks have striven for moral dignity and, by contrast with America's state of immorality, we appear to be moral supremacists, not black supremacists.

Playboy: The war in Biafra seems every bit as brutal as any other war. Black life there seems to be as cheap to blacks as you say it is to whites in this country.

Jackson: The Nigerians and Biafrans are fighting with white men's weapons. They are fighting a war that is based on a white man's division of Africa, and the cause of the division was an earlier economic colonialism. The war is an unfortunate aberration and the signs of white meddling are everywhere in it.

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