It's All About the Benjamins: Jesse Jackson's New Crusade
On its way to record economic expansion, the United States has amassed 2 million prison inmates, the largest prison population of any nation on earth. These disparate milestones tell such contradictory stories about America that most national leaders simply have avoided the bad news and trumpeted the good. There are few national figures capable of incorporating these seemingly paradoxical trends into a coherent agenda. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is one of them.Disparate activities in varying venues are nothing unusual for Jackson, whose wide range of concerns is well-known and frequently criticized. Although it may be tempting to dismiss his issue-hopping as one big publicity stunt, veteran Jackson watchers have learned to follow his trail when looking for the issues of the future.Last November, Jackson was arrested protesting the expulsion of six black high school students in Decatur, Illinois. He argued that the school's "zero-tolerance" punishment was too harsh and helped fuel a "jail-industrial complex" full of high school dropouts. Just two months later, Jackson hosted some of the nation's top business leaders at the swank New York Sheraton for the third annual "Wall Street Project," organized by his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.The Wall Street Project seeks to link the future of black America to investment capital. "African-Americans don't own a single building in downtown America," Jackson explained to an audience of investment bankers and CEOs in January during the opening session of the conference. "It's not because we don't have the desire or the ability. It's because we can't get access to capital."In addition to his Wall Street office, Jackson also has initiated the "LaSalle Street Project" in Chicago and the "Silicon Valley Project" in California's high-tech corridor. In those environs, he pushes the notion that corporations must invest in inner-city and rural America just as they do in foreign markets. He seeks to win minorities a greater share of business contracts with America's top corporations as well as to get more minorities placed on corporate boards. "We're telling Wall Street that inclusion leads to growth," he said. "The more talent, the more ideas you have included, the more everybody wins."Jackson's primary selling point is not that such investments are the moral thing to do, but that they will boost the bottom line even as they help lift folks off the bottom. His message to the money men is shorn of superfluous sentiment and focused on the supreme moral value of this unsentimental era: profit.But when Jackson takes this notion on the road, it has a much softer melody. He has even supplied a lyrical playbook, entitled It's about the Money! Written by Jackson and his congressman son and namesake, the recently published volume reads more like a self-help manual designed to acquaint readers with elementary concepts of money management than a book co-authored by two of the country's most progressive leaders.In a world where, as a friend quips, "the IMF and all the other MFs control the global economy," there seems to be little alternative but to learn the rules of capitalism. In the introduction to his new book, Jackson writes, "Failing to understand the role of money in a capitalist system is like being a fish that doesn't know how to navigate water."But Jackson also has been taken to task for his new direction. Jackson critics on the left contend he is merely showing his capitalist colors; his right-wing detractors argue he is just expanding his extortion techniques from the government to corporations. Even those who consider him an ally are suspicious of his enthusiasm for capitalist solutions and corporate connections. Has he forgotten the historical lessons of neocolonialism, that capitalism needs losers to thrive? Isn't his embrace of corporate capitalism a betrayal of the progressive ideas held by his mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?In his latest book on King, "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.," Michael Eric Dyson argues persuasively that King had embraced ideas of democratic socialism before his death. In his 1967 book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?," for instance, King notes that "for the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must be more person-centered than property or profit-centered."Because of his two presidential campaigns as a grassroots, left-leaning insurgent and his activist public profile, Jackson has been considered the steward of King's progressive legacy. Isn't it blasphemous to consort with the corporate moguls who have been the targets of progressives' ire since at least the late 19th century?With typical grandiosity, Jackson rationalizes his latest thrust as the "fourth movement in the freedom symphony," characterizing it as a kind of grand finale of the movement King helped lead. "The first movement was the struggle to end slavery," Jackson notes in a recent column explaining why he was celebrating King on Wall Street. "The second was the movement to end legal apartheid in the South. The third movement was gaining the right to vote. Dr. King led us this far. But he had just begun the fourth movement- the struggle for economic security and equal opportunity-when he was struck down."Jackson writes that the fourth movement will be the hardest because it requires "unlikely alliances and a break with preconceived notions." Apparently, Jackson is referring to previous notions about the inadequacies of capitalism or King's notion about the need to shun a "profit-centered" economy."My problem is that Jackson's strategy is elitist in focus," says Lisa Brock, a founding member of the Black Radical Congress and associate professor of history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "Most black people don't have the resources to invest and still face the problems caused by the very corporations he's romancing."In his new book, "Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis," Christian Parenti argues that the soaring prison population Jackson regularly bemoans is, in fact, a by-product of the aggressive corporate culture he now champions. "Stocks associated with the criminal justice system are booming, primarily because of the growth of the prison- industrial complex," Brock adds. "Does Jesse want us to add that very profitable stock to our portfolio?"Despite these criticisms, Jackson's capitalist embrace is nothing new. His latest capitalist adventures are continuations of his previous concerns about economic equity and corporate reciprocity. He has long argued that inner-city and rural communities were ripe for the kind of investment U.S. corporations reflexively target elsewhere in the world. Even while working with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Jackson brought an economic focus to civil rights concerns; he headed the group's Operation Breadbasket, which badgered inner-city supermarkets to employ local residents and stock products made by black-owned companies. When Operation PUSH broke away from SCLC in 1971, Jackson again asserted the primacy of economics in the freedom struggle. "To a considerable extent, Jackson's current strategy is a throwback to Operation PUSH's 'corporate covenants' of 20 years ago," Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies, writes in a recent column.That strategy utilized a method in which PUSH negotiators would threaten to "withdraw enthusiasm" (a euphemism for boycott) from corporations unless they signed a "covenant" to increase minority hiring and contractual services. Several companies signed such agreements with PUSH (including Ford, Burger King and Anheuser-Busch). In 1994, Black Enterprise magazine published an article that charted the course of some of those covenants and found significant increases in African-American employment and the granting of franchises by participating firms. Other civil rights groups, including the NAACP, later adopted similar strategies.Civil rights groups are increasingly focusing their agendas on issues of economic justice. Jackson again appears to be leading the way with his various "projects" encouraging market investments. One aspect of the Wall Street Project is to use churches to evangelize an economic message, transforming debt-ridden black consumers into solvent stockholders. "Too many working poor people choose a bear lottery over a bull market," Jackson explained in a recent interview. "They choose floating gambling boats over stable banks. They must be brought into the age of economic enlightenment."Jackson has challenged churches to initiate investment clubs and financial education programs for their members. He urges them to form "finance ministries" that will instruct church staff and members on how to reduce debt, build equity and gain an ownership stake in their communities. "It's a contradiction to build a church house and not have a plan to build your own house," he said. Those who argue that Jackson has abandoned the progressive agenda have little evidence for their claim. The graying 58-year-old is still fighting the important fights. Although wildly unpopular in the suburbs and on editorial pages, his Decatur campaign showcased the damage being inflicted by zero-tolerance policies, particularly on African-American youth. He has spoken out forcefully about several police brutality-killing cases, from Riverside, California to Brooklyn to his Chicago hometown. Name an issue, Jackson's on it. True, his commitment often is fleeting and episodic. But he's a self-professed tree shaker; let others make the jelly.But the larger question of whether market mechanisms are capable of providing relief for those left out is seldom raised in the capitalism-friendly Rainbow/PUSH coalition. The title of Jackson's latest book is just a slight variation on the hip-hop motto "it's all about the Benjamins," slang referring to Ben Franklin's face on the $100 bill. The nation's leading civil rights activists appears to be in concert with those inner-city bards who have long made the point that market logic may be the only ideology that counts these days.