The Rev. Jesse Jackson's (search) presence in the turmoil surrounding Terri Schiavo (search) highlights a simmering debate among black politicians: While Jackson's appearance on behalf of Schiavo's parents reflected a strain of social conservatism, others say the attention on one tragic case is excessive and unfair because it obscures larger concerns for poor Americans.
Political observers say that the case of the brain-damaged Florida woman is a tricky one for some black leaders, who often take liberal stands on civil rights and other social issues but come out of a traditional religious background.
"Even though African-American church leaders, in particular, have been very committed to a liberal political agenda as it relates to collective rights, empowerment and justice issues, there's always been a very strong current of moral conservatism," said R. Drew Smith, a professor who studies black religion and politics at Morehouse College (search).
"I think Rev. Jackson's intervention in this case is probably reflective of that tendency."
Indeed, days before publicly supporting Schiavo's parents — who want their daughter reconnected to a feeding tube over the objections of her husband — Jackson had criticized Congress for intervening.
While noting that he thought the tube should be reinserted, Jackson said the government should do more to feed all hungry and disadvantaged Americans.
"I implore them to apply this same passion for Terri Schiavo to the young infants and children dying of starvation and lack of prenatal and postnatal care," Jackson said in a statement released by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, his Chicago-based group. "Those on food stamps need a feeding tube to fend off poverty."
The dichotomy of the Schiavo case also turned up when Congress debated whether to let federal courts get involved earlier this month.
Of the 23 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who voted — 17 did not attend — 10 supported the Republican-sponsored bill. They included Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., and Albert Wynn, D-Md., who in a statement said it was a "question of conscience."
"I believe that in the absence of a living will expressing her desires, and given the willingness of her parents and siblings to care for her, Congress should afford Ms. Schiavo the opportunity to continue receiving lifesaving sustenance," Wynn said.
Rep. Melvin L. Watt (news, bio, voting record), a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the CBC, disagreed.
"I'm wondering how many children are going to bed hungry tonight and how many we could feed with (the) amount of money" that Congress has spent on the case, he said on the House floor. "How many feeding tubes have we withdrawn by our own indifference in this body?"
Those who work to close health gaps between rich and poor in America agree that, while the Schiavo case is emotionally wrenching, it obscures the need to alleviate life-threatening health disparities affecting many millions of people. Census data, for instance, show that nearly 45 million Americans had no health insurance in 2003, an increase over 2002. One in three Latinos and one in five blacks are uninsured.
Dr. Winston Price, director of the National Medical Association, a black physician's group, noted that black babies are twice as likely to die before age one than white babies. He accused the Bush administration of whittling away at social programs to help poor Americans.
"We spend so much time at the legislative level to address the feeding of one individual while we seem to have very little conscience about cutting millions from Medicaid and essentially resisting feeding millions of people by those kinds of budget cuts," Price said.
Smith said that, given the conservative bent of the nation's political leadership, the split among black leaders will likely become more obvious as conservative blacks find it more acceptable to air their views.
"There's been a theological shift in the thinking of conservative black clergy about the appropriateness of public involvements and certainly a shift in public climate toward this," he said. "Conservative clergy, including black clergy, may feel more comfortable and empowered" when weighing in on public issues.