At around the age of 7, Barack Obama saw a picture in Life magazine of a black man who had tried to peel his skin off, and Obama had an epiphany. “I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation,” he wrote in Dreams From My Father. “I know that seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack.”

At around the same time, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was involved in a quite different ambush attack. At Martin Luther King’s side when he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet, Jackson appeared on television the next day with the civil rights leader’s blood on his shirt. The formative events that shaped the last generation of black leadership could not be more different from those that have informed this one.

Obama was born in 1961, the year the Freedom Riders rolled through the South and were met with chains, clubs and firebombs. He was just 2 when Dr. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. By his seventh birthday, both King and Malcolm X had been assassinated, and Congress had moved to protect a right to vote he wouldn’t be able to exercise for another eleven years. Obama knows those years and places only from the history books, and even that knowledge is less than reliable. When he went to Selma, Alabama, to address the Brown Chapel AME church on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday earlier this year, he credited the demonstration for enabling his parents, a mixed-race couple, to fall in love. It turned out he had been born four years earlier.

Obama is the most prominent figure in what has been cast as a new generation in black politics. It’s an illustrious list that includes, to name a few, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Tennessee Congressman and Democratic Leadership Council chair Harold Ford Jr., Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. As the civil rights movement forced open the doors of academe, corporate America and elite universities, this new generation strode through. Booker is a graduate of Yale Law School and a Rhodes scholar; Obama went to Columbia and Harvard law; Patrick and Brown were at Harvard. Ford was at the University of Pennsylvania.

The emergence of this cohort has filled the commentariat with joy–not just because of what they are: bright, polite and, where skin tone is concerned, mostly light–but because of what they are not. They have been hailed not just as a development in black American politics but as a repudiation of black American politics; not just as different from Jesse Jackson but the epitome of the anti-Jesse.

“[Obama] is in many ways the full flowering of a strain of up-tempo, non-grievance, American-Dream-In-Color politics,” wrote Terence Samuel in The American Prospect recently. “His counterparts are young, Ivy League professionals, heirs to the civil-rights movement who are determined to move beyond both the mood and the methods of their forebears.”

There are many problems with this. Chief among them is that this “new generation” is itself a crude political construct built more on wishful thinking than on chronological fact. Patrick, born in 1956, is hailed as part of it, but hapless New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was born the same year, and civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who was born just two years earlier, are not. Obama and Booker are always mentioned as members of this new club, but Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who was born between them and spent his twenty-first birthday in prison protesting apartheid, is not.

So whatever else this is about, it is not just about years. It is one thing to say there is a critical mass of black politicians of a certain age and political disposition. It is entirely another to claim that they represent the views of a generation.

Moreover, those who constructed the model forgot to build any women into it. Donna Brazile, who in 2000 became the first African-American to direct a major presidential campaign, is rarely mentioned in their number, even though she is younger than Patrick. Nor is Donna Edwards, who in 2006 mounted a strong challenge to Albert Wynn in Maryland in a generational battle royal that will see round two in 2008.

But the champions of this new generation have their hearts set on a symbol far greater than a more diverse electoral landscape. At the very least the post-civil rights cohort represents proof of the nation’s unrelenting progress and boundless opportunities. “They’ve lived the dream, and represent a generation of black Americans who do not feel cut off from the larger society,” writes Samuel.

At most it does not just mark a new chapter in America’s racial history; it shreds the entire book and then burns the remains. To some this period, which has seen voter disenfranchisement in Florida, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Jena Six cases, is not only post-civil rights but postracial. “Obama embodies and preaches the true and vital message that in today’s America, the opportunities available to black people are unlimited if they work hard, play by the rules, and get a good education,” wrote Stuart Taylor Jr. in National Journal.

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.

Obama was criticized by some black leaders for not speaking out more forcefully on the Jena Six incident. “If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena,” Jackson said after a speech at the historically black Benedict College in South Carolina. “Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment.” By not seizing on the issue more, Jackson claimed, Obama was “acting like he’s white.” (Jackson later said his comment was misrepresented; the State newspaper of Columbia stood by its reporting.) But the parallels Jackson drew shed light on the key differences between his campaign and Obama’s. For if he were the candidate he wouldn’t be doing as well as Obama, and the reason is less because Obama is “acting white” than because he is making every effort not to act “too black.”

Indeed, the main thing the new leaders have in common is that they don’t scare white people. Or at least not too many and not too much. This is not an entirely accidental or insignificant fact. For while they do not control the way they are perceived, they do have some influence over how they come across. “In so much of the work I’ve done, I’ve found that you had to put people at ease on the question of race before you could even start to talk about what you were doing,” explains Patrick. “I don’t fit a certain expectation that some people have about black men. And I don’t mean that as anything other than an observation about my life.”

This is a sad but honest reflection on the reality of black middle-class life in America. Anyone who wants to make it in a predominantly white world has to navigate racism in all its subtlety and plausible deniability. In this sense the boardrooms and debating chambers are no different from the rap videos on BET. Race is, among other things, a performance.

Obama knows this only too well. In The Audacity of Hope, he recalls sitting in the Illinois Senate with a white Democratic legislator as they watched a black colleague (referred to as John Doe) deliver a speech on the racist implications of eliminating a certain program. “You know what the problem is with John?” the white senator asked him. “Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white.” Obama reflected. “In defense of my black colleague, I pointed out that it’s not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take–too angry? not angry enough?–when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents. Still, [his] comment was instructive. Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America.”

Whether “white guilt” has ever truly been exercised, let alone exhausted, and what good it ever did anyone even if it has, are moot points. The fact of the matter is that a black politician who wants white support must first “gauge the right tone.” In 1995, when it seemed as though Colin Powell might run for President, he explained his appeal to white voters thus: “I speak reasonably well, like a white person,” and, visually, “I ain’t that black.”

In the past this would not have mattered. There was a time when Powell could have been as light-skinned as a latte and as eloquent as Shakespeare and still not be in the running. In 1958, 53 percent of voters said they would not vote for a black candidate for President; in 1984 it was 16 percent; by 2003 it was 6 percent. Herein lies one substantial fact that is remolding the nature of black politics and the opportunities for black politicians–white people have become a viable electoral constituency for black candidates. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll early this year, a candidate’s being over 72, a Mormon or twice divorced are all greater issues for voters than race.

There is, of course, the very real chance that they are lying.In the past white voters have told pollsters that they were happier about voting for black candidates than they actually were, leaving the vote for black candidates about five points less than predicted. This was once known as the Bradley effect, after the 1982 gubernatorial candidacy of black Democratic candidate Tom Bradley in California. Bradley was ahead in the polls until the very end but lost. Some white voters who said they would vote for Bradley changed their minds on election day. Seven years later it was renamed the Wilder effect, after Douglas Wilder narrowly scraped to victory as Virginia governor in what, according to polls, ought to have been a far more comfortable win.

But it seems unlikely that this time around there will be an “Obama effect.” A report by the Pew Research Center, which matched the polls to the results for five black candidates in statewide races during the 2006 midterms, found that they were highly accurate. “Fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself,” concluded the Pew report. This change in voting patterns enables black candidates to make substantial rather than symbolic runs for state or even national office and therefore lends different potential priorities to black political possibilities. But to be successful they have to nurture a different base and create a different coalition of interests than their predecessors did.

“The civil rights generation saw politics as the next step in the struggle for civil rights,” explains Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times. “Their aim was to get their agenda taken up by whoever won. But this new generation do not conceive politics as the next step but just as what it is–politics. Their aim is to win.”n