2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

A New Type of African-American Politician


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Kelly Brewington
2/3/08 Balt. Sun 24A

A generation ago, most African-American political candidates pursued elected office as an extension of civil rights activism. Today, a new crop has emerged: post-civil rights, change-chanting candidates who defy conventional racial and political categories.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is leading the way. As the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas opens new territory in race and politics, his success signals a transformation for the black civil rights establishment that came before him.

Other young African-American politicians, less well-known than Obama, are on the same path. From Tennessee to Massachusetts to New Jersey, they have won elections on race-neutral campaigns that emphasized bridging political and ideological divides rather than the social justice activism of the past generation.

"The old racial regime we knew in the 1950s and '60s has fallen apart - but what will replace it is unclear," said john a. powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. "What we are seeing now is a new racial regime where blacks can play on any stage. And women can play on any stage. It's just not going to be the same stage."

Obama's multiracial appeal is something more candidates - regardless of their race - must strive for if they hope to keep pace with the country's diversifying electorate, predicts powell, who does not capitalize his name.

"Even among white politicians, there will increasingly be a need to make those bridges," he said. "And Barack is an extension of that. He represents a new type of leadership in the black community, but also the Latino and white community."

But how Obama and others navigate the future will require a delicate balance, said powell. Obama positions himself as grounded in the black community with a captivating appeal to white voters. Last month alone, he won the South Carolina primary decisively, buoyed by overwhelming support from black voters, then two days later, scored powerful endorsements from two generation of Kennedys - Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his son Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and niece Caroline Kennedy.

Obama and today's crop of young black politicians - Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker and former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. - frame their campaigns around broad issues. By doing so, they have become more palatable to whites, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and director of its Center for African American Leadership.

"These leaders are far more beholden to white politics," he said. "If Barack Obama gets elected, he will be president of the United States, not the black president of the United States. We can't go expecting him to be leading marches in Jena."

And while some have wondered if that means an abandonment of the old guard of black activists, such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Walters said one does not replace the other.

"If you are not sophisticated about the black community, you assume that its leadership is replaceable - that one person should do everything," he said. "Civil rights leaders are a very important category of leaders. Their presence will not change no matter who the president of the United States will be."

Obama isn't being placed in a civil-rights box, yet he is a product of gains made by generations past, said Jackson in an interview. "Of course he is new, but he is a beneficiary of the old," he said. "Unfortunately people see black leadership through a keyhole, not a door. They see one, not the whole."

In 1984, Jackson, whose name was synonymous with civil rights activisim, made the leap to presidential candidate. He won five primaries and caucuses in 1984, capturing 3.5 million votes. Jackson came back to run in 1988, to win 13 contests and double the number of votes to 7 million. Never before had an African-American made a serious run at the White House and been taken seriously by the electorate, political experts said.

Nevertheless, many voters could not see beyond Jackson the in-your-face activist.

"Jackson was frustratingly put in a black box," said Walters, who was Jackson's top issues adviser in 1984. "We didn't run a racial campaign - we went into low-income white areas, to south Texas to talk to Hispanic farm workers. But it didn't work because of his perception of being on the scene for 25 years as an African-American leader."

Jackson has endorsed Obama but has not held back criticism of the candidate. In September, Jackson was quoted in the South Carolina newspaper The State as saying Obama was "acting like he's white" by not protesting on behalf of six black teenagers charged with beating a white classmate in a racially charged case in Jena, La.

"If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena," Jackson said after a speech at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.

Last month, Jackson's son, Jesse Jackson Jr., who is national co-chairman of Obama's campaign, responded with an op-ed article in the Chicago Sun-Times. With the headline "You're wrong on Obama, Dad," the letter championed Obama's dedication to equality.

In an interview, the elder Jackson characterized his remarks as "analysis, not criticism," in the hopes of pushing Obama to reach out to black South Carolina voters, who, polls showed at the time, were largely backing his rival, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"If he was going to penetrate, he had to change his campaign," Jackson said. "And now you see him more in these churches and in black universities. If you are going to penetrate the market, you have to go to the market."

Jackson and Sharpton said they have pressed all the candidates - not only Obama - to develop a strategy on urban policy and other issues of importance to black voters.

"My job is keeping them honest," Sharpton said in an interview. "I'm pressuring them to come with a platform. And whoever does will get my endorsement."

Sharpton noted that Obama has reached out to him lately, dining with him at Sylvia's, Harlem's famous soul food restaurant, in November, as the press tagged along.

"I think he found he couldn't run a completely race-neutral campaign," Sharpton said. "In the last few months, he has talked about Jena, he has endorsed the hate-crime bill, he had dinner with me."

Sharpton said Obama was forced to change his strategy in light of high-profile racial incidents from the Don Imus controversy to the case of Genarlow Wilson, the Georgia teen released from prison last year after spending more than two years in jail for a teen sex conviction. Each case sparked an outcry in black communities nationwide.

Black candidates running a statewide or national campaign face a quandary unlike their white counterparts - appeal to all races, but don't forget where you came from.

Obama isn't the first to tread this path, note some experts. In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia became the nation's first African-American governor. And in 1966, Edward F. Brooke of Massachusetts became the African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction and was dubbed a national rising star.

They were successful candidates preaching change, who were able to appeal to whites while not alienating blacks, said Hanes Walton Jr., a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

"Sure, you had these old-line African-American politicians who came from African-American districts," he said. "But slowly and gradually, those who represented statewide positions started cropping up. It's not that Obama is a different African-American official; he's just the newest one."

Still, Walton added, Obama's ascendance to the national stage is pivotal in American politics.

"He's part of a younger generation, with more opportunities and a lot of ambition," he said. "And ambitious people will break through."

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People and a former congressman from Georgia, said some black voters expect fiery civil rights language from Obama. But the majority appear won over by Obama, the candidate who carves a new path.

"Some black voters are looking for more, but I don't think anyone is looking for him to be either Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King," Bond said in an interview. "He is who he is. And obviously, that has enormous appeal for a wide swath of Americans.


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