The Obama Effect
In 1925 Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at historically black Howard University, hailed the emergence of the "New Negro" as it related to the Harlem Renaissance. "Hitherto, it must be admitted that American Negroes have been a race more in name than in fact, or to be exact, more in sentiment than in experience. The chief bond...has been that of a common condition rather than...a life in common. In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self determination."
More than eighty years later the value of the new "Negro" leadership is, it seems, directly proportional to its distance from the black community and its experiences. Its cheerleaders desire not so much to refashion black politics as to eliminate it altogether, not so much to eliminate racism as to eradicate discussion of it. This is not necessarily the fault of politicians. But it is their challenge.
"[Obama] is being consumed as the embodiment of color blindness," says Angela Davis, professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "It's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He's become the model of diversity in this period...a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference. The change that brings no change."
Commenting on the presidential ritual of pardoning one turkey in the run-up to Thanksgiving, Arundhati Roy once said, "A few carefully bred turkeys...the occasional Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice...are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park. The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut and die of AIDS. Basically they're for the pot.... Who can say that turkeys are against Thanksgiving? They participate in it!"
What is true of the Republican Administration is differently true of American society. The older generation of black politicians--those decried as pursuing narrow racial interests--created the conditions for a new political class and a new agenda. So although the way this "new generation" has been characterized is misleading and self-serving, it does not mean that they represent nothing at all.
Their résumés are relevant. During the latter half of the last century black leaders rose in politics primarily through religious institutions, which since slavery had been one of the few autonomous areas of black life. "The principal social institution within every black community was the church," wrote Manning Marable in Black Leadership. "As political leaders, the black clergy were usually the primary spokespersons for the entire black community, especially during periods of crisis. As the political system became more democratic and as more blacks were permitted to participate in voting, it was only a small shift from running a large church to running for public office." In other words, they emerged from organizations that had an organic link with the black community, and their advancement was inextricably tied to a broader agenda that advanced the interests of black people.
If religion was the principal conduit into the political class, it also played a crucial role in shaping black political culture. "To some extent, this tradition has been characterized by a charismatic or dominating political style," Marable wrote. It was a "messianic style" that produced stronger leaders than it did movements. After King died, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference never really recovered; when Malcolm X was shot, the Organization of Afro-American Unity virtually died with him. When Jesse Jackson stopped running for President, the Rainbow Coalition ceased to have any significant influence. "The difference between the Christian Coalition and the Rainbow Coalition is that the Christian Coalition exists," a former Jackson aide told me.
So by the time this new generation of leaders came of age, no black-led movement existed, and while most have been active members of predominantly black churches, these would not provide the vehicle for their ascent. Having usually arrived on the political scene through business or academe, they are not so much produced by the black community as presented to it. "We used to think there was a black community. It was always heterogeneous, but we were always able to imagine us as part of that community. That's no longer possible," says Davis. "I don't think it's possible to mobilize black communities in the way that it was in the past.... I don't even know that I would even look for black leadership now. That category assumes a link between race and progressive politics."
This, more than tortured explanations of ethnic authenticity, explains the initial ambivalence black voters display toward many of these candidates. They have no idea who they are and want to know where they are coming from and whom they plan to represent. "Are they black enough?" is often shorthand for a universal voter concern: "Will they represent my interests?"
Given the manner in which these politicians are depicted as going "beyond racial politics," the concerns of black voters are well founded. The records of this "talented tenth" are mixed. Booker has so far concentrated primarily on fighting crime in Newark and is a strong advocate of school vouchers. Patrick has been rolling back the more egregious policies of his predecessor, Mitt Romney, by rescinding the ban on embryo research and decriminalizing undocumented immigrants. He has also championed casino gambling, property tax relief and state health insurance. Fenty has been criticized for being secretive and authoritarian since he took over the DC school system with the aim of radically improving some schools, closing others and giving the schools chancellor the right to fire nonunion workers.