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Racial politics in a Senate hot seat

With Senate leaders threatening to block Roland Burris from being sworn in today as Barack Obama’s replacement, many of his supporters see a familiar story of race and injustice.

An all-white club, they say, is trying to prevent a black man from gaining admission, as well as the power that comes with a Senate seat. Summoning a harsh metaphor from the nation’s racial battles, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) even called the Senate “the last bastion of plantation politics.”

But the Burris episode has unexpectedly become the first example of how racial politics have changed with the election of Barack Obama to the White House.

Many black leaders, including Obama, have declined to back Burris, even if that leaves the Senate with no African American members. Some view his appointment by Illinois’ embattled governor as an odd playing of the race card. Others are renouncing the style of politics that highlights racial grievances and inequality, saying it can no longer work now that the nation has elected its first black president.

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“It is another statement on how black politics is now -- that the old regime, the old outlook, the old perspective has been displaced,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a black pastor from Boston and senior advisor to the Church of God in Christ, the biggest Pentecostal denomination in the country. “You can’t use 50-year-old ideas in a new political era.”

Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, known for his confrontational style of politics, is distancing himself from the Burris matter -- conferring privately Monday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid but refusing to join critics in denouncing the Democratic leadership in racial terms.

“You’ve not heard a lot of the usual names in the civil rights movement say anything, and that’s not an accident,” Sharpton said in an interview.

The swirl of racial politics around Burris has been particularly complicated because of the unusual route he is taking to Washington.

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Burris was appointed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate seat vacated by Obama. Senate Democratic leaders, however, say they do not want to honor any Blagojevich appointment, because he has been accused by federal prosecutors of trying to sell the Senate seat for personal gain. State lawmakers in Illinois are moving to impeach the governor, in part so that a successor could pick the new senator.

Burris, a former state attorney general, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has said his appointment should be viewed separately from the governor’s legal problems.

All this has presented black leaders with a sensitive calculation. Some are rejecting the Burris appointment. But even some of those who support Burris say they believe Blagojevich selected an African American to make it hard for Obama and other Democrats to reject his choice -- and also as a bid for black support in his efforts to save his own political career.

Sharpton, for example, accused Blagojevich of “cynically” attempting to exploit racial loyalties among blacks to help his own cause. At the same time, he said he hoped that Burris would eventually be seated, and he faulted Democrats for “taking the bait” by opposing a black appointee.

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The dispute has also revealed a generational split among black leaders.

An earlier group of black politicians and community leaders came to power by fighting segregation and racial injustice often through protest and confrontation. More recently, African American politicians such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are carving a path to power that is less ideological and more pragmatic. It is a path that proved successful for Obama, who won the presidency by presenting himself as a candidate who could transcend race and focus instead on more universal issues of economic disparities and class. Even on racially sensitive issues such as affirmative action, Obama charted his own course, endorsing class-based rather than race-based preferences.

Now, black leaders who tended to be more confrontational and attuned to racial injustice are forced to reassess whether those tactics can work.

For Rush, a former Black Panther, the dueling approaches were evident as early as 2000, when he faced a primary challenge from Obama. Rush won the race easily, but for years afterward he felt that Obama had unfairly painted him as part of the old guard.

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Now Rush, in defending Burris, is warning Senate Democrats against trying to “lynch” a would-be black senator -- rhetoric that is welcomed by some who fear that Obama’s victory will diminish the nation’s appetite for addressing lingering racial inequality.

Obama is “just one African American person, even if he is the president of the United States,” said the Rev. Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America and pastor of the Chicago church where Rush and others honored Burris on Sunday. “He doesn’t decide for the rest of the country that we should not seek to have African Americans in local political positions, statewide political positions or even national political positions.”

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, who heads a large black congregation in Baltimore, said the Democrats risk alienating blacks and others who may view the leadership’s opposition to Burris as “old-style politics.” He expressed concern that the Burris controversy was taking place at the same time that Obama had selected Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is white, as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

“If you look at the major appointments that are going on in the Democratic Party, and Mr. Burris’ appointment is one of those key appointments, it doesn’t look good right now,” Reid said.

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Some black leaders said their frustration was fueled by reports that Harry Reid had called Blagojevich and recommended two white women for Obama’s seat, allegedly saying that several potential candidates who are black might face longer odds of winning election once the appointment period was over.

Reid has disputed that account. “This is part of Blagojevich’s cloud. He is making all this up. . . . I didn’t tell him who not to appoint,” the Senate majority leader said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Burris on Monday sought to avoid questions focusing on race, saying in a Chicago airport news conference before his flight to Washington that race “has never been a concern of mine.”

But black leaders said Monday that the outcome of Burris’ quest would speak volumes about the state of black power in the age of Obama.

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Sharpton, even as he treads lightly around the Burris episode, said the Obama administration will not be immune from vocal protests if such a response is needed.

“Grievance politics will exist as long as there are grievances,” he said, adding a reference to the historic day of Obama’s election: “And grievances did not evaporate on Nov. 4.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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