Reverend Jesse Jackson has a message for Yale undergraduates: “There is too much silence in the face of too much pain.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Jackson — a civil rights activist, former television host and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition — spoke to over a hundred members of the Yale community about the inequality that persists today in both the United States and Africa. While Jackson addressed racial, gender-based and economic inequality, he particularly emphasized the mountain of student debt that many American college students face, which he cited as a “violation” against which students should rally.
“The reality is that the few have so much, the many have so little and the middle class is dwindling,” Jackson said, referring to income inequality in America. “We are free but unequal.”
Throughout the conversation, Jackson emphasized the racial and economic inequalities that are still present in America today. Jackson cited the fact that black Americans face higher rates of child mortality, lower life expectancies, higher rates of foreclosure and staggeringly large rates of incarceration, among other statistics, as evidence that Americans are not yet living in a post-racial society.
Although Americans may have lifted the “daily burden” of racism, the institutional framework is still there, Jackson said.
At one point, Jackson asked members of the crowd who had student loan debt to stand up and share how much debt they were in. Though not many students stood up — Jackson conceded that, at Yale, students are buttressed from the pain of debt because of the school’s financial aid system — Jackson said debt incurred from college loans should be the “spark” for student activism in this generation.
Jordan Coley ’17, a student who attended the talk, said although Jackson seemed to have faith the activist spirit was alive in today’s youth, healso suggested that young people today are not doing as much to speak up for their rights as students had in the past.
Still, Jackson commented positively on the level of diversity in the audience.
“I cannot but think that Doctor King would have marveled at this assortment of so many different students here today,” said Jackson, who was a close friend and supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.
Jackson also touched on the current political situation in America, including his views on President Barack Obama’s time in the Oval Office thus far and the speculation around Hillary Clinton’s potential bid for office in 2016.
“I have to give him a B,” Jackson said of Obama’s presidency thus far. While he said he was not wildly impressed with Obama’s leadership overall, Jackson commended Obama for improving the job market, taking troops out of the Middle East and maintaining the ability to negotiate in the face of strong Republican opposition.
Jackson invoked the theme of inequality in his discussion of Africa as well, adding the caveat that it is difficult to discuss Africa as a whole because of the continent’s large size and diverse population. He spoke of problems with food security and resource management, as well as the challenge of not only democratizing politics, but also democratizing economic opportunity.
After Jackson’s introductory speech, he answered questions from Eric Stern ’15 and Justin Schuster ’15, co-editors in chief of The Politic, and Akinyi Ochieng ’15, president of the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development. Afterwards, audience members were invited to come up and ask questions of Jackson.
Students interviewed said they enjoyed hearing from Jackson.
“You read about the civil rights movement in history books, but it was amazing to see him talking about issues today,” said Dara Huggins ’17. “Within the black community, there needs to be a renewal of passion to tie up these loose ends.”
Huggins added that Jackson appeared to be strongly hinting that students in the audience should be more politically active.
Jackson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 by former President Bill Clinton.