‘The Breakthrough’ by Gwen Ifill, ‘What Obama Means’ by Jabari Asim
In the year since Barack Obama’s remarkable surge to the head of the pack of Democratic presidential candidates, we’ve been hearing a lot about the nation’s new “post-racial” politics. The basic concept is this: Obama’s acceptance by the white mainstream means African Americans have arrived politically -- or at least attained something like electoral equality. Bull Connor is dead; the 1960s are over.
Two new books explore the moment, from two decidedly different tacks -- the political and the cultural. In “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” journalist Gwen Ifill argues that there’s nothing really “post-racial” about Obama’s election. Race still matters, as do gender and class, and they can be crippling hurdles for a politician whose success depends on broad demographic appeal. Obama’s election showed how to bridge those fissures not only in an electorate sick of the incumbent party (even Michael Dukakis might have won this one), but also in local and regional elections where the legacies of race and place can be harder to overcome.
A large part of Obama’s appeal is his embodiment of a new multiracial generation and of a long history of black “cool,” the hipness that has given us Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier and Jay-Z, argues Jabari Asim in “What Obama Means.”
Asim, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis and author of “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” offers the weaker of the two books, an unfocused rumination on race and culture. His core argument seems to be that Obama’s election is part of a continuum of crossover success that includes Poitier’s 1963 Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field,” Michael Jackson’s all-time top-selling pop album “Thriller” in 1982 and Michael Jordan’s single-handed revival of the NBA in the 1980s and 1990s.
Asim understands that Obama’s win was a function of time, place and conditions, but then he loads his book with a mishmash of African American influences on popular culture as though that was the battering ram. It’s unconvincing. Obama’s win had more to do with the erosion of racial political resistance among whites. Though it can be hard to separate culture from politics, it’s one thing for young white adults to download a hip-hop album and something else entirely for white culture to hand the keys of power to a black man. Ultimately, that happened because of massive demographic shifts that are still in motion, and because of the decimation of the middle class. Add in an unpopular war and a demoralized consumer economy, and the stage is set. Obama was selling hope and optimism to an electorate hungering for both. In politics, it’s all about the timing -- what Obama accomplished in 2008 probably wouldn’t have happened in 2004, when the cultural crossover was just as strong.
We’ve already heard something of Ifill’s book. You might recall a brief kerfuffle from the right wing before the October vice presidential debate. The spin was that Ifill, a black broadcast journalist, couldn’t be an impartial moderator of the debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin because she was working on a book about the generational shift among African American politicians. The debate went on anyway, and the controversy vanished.
While Ifill’s admiration of Obama’s achievement is clear, it is not based on racial identity, as the spin had it. Ifill, a former staff writer for the Washington Post and the New York Times, is taken with how Obama and his campaign advisors minimized Obama’s race for most of white America. But Obama is not the only black politician to have done so, and Ifill tells several stories, from Deval Patrick’s successful rise to the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, to U.S. Rep. Artur Davis’ dream of becoming the first black person elected governor of Alabama. Ifill devotes an entire chapter to “legacy politics,” exploring the generational tensions within several African American political families, including the Jacksons of Chicago, the Fords of Memphis, the Patersons of Harlem and the Clays of St. Louis. In each case, politics became the family business -- much as it has for the Kennedys, Bushes and, to a lesser extent, the Gores.
Yet this is more than a book of connected profiles and narratives. Ifill bores at varying depths into race, class, gender and generational change. “Sandpaper politics,” Ifill calls it, and there is friction aplenty. Upstarts who were born after the big civil rights battles reject elders’ admonitions to wait their turn. Well-educated, suburban blacks face skepticism from inner-city African Americans over the extent of their “blackness.”
And always gender. Ifill adroitly lays out the conflict at the heart of the fight for the Democratic nomination between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as “a struggle for two historically disadvantaged groups to grab for the same brass ring at precisely the same moment.” Ultimately, someone had to lose the nomination, and in a fight weighted with that much history, bitterness was inevitable.
This is a strongly reported book, with some broad conclusions drawn from scores of interviews and peppered with interesting, revealing profiles (though there’s a bit too much about Alabama). But it tends to give too little weight to the prevalence of economic class in many of these cross currents. Ifill argues that Obama achieved success by portraying himself, in essence, as the antithesis of the “angry black man.” The new black politics isn’t built on marching and protesting but through the Internet and networking. That’s an easier sell to white voters who “are more comfortable with black candidates who do not have that anger.”
She’s right. Obama’s political message delivered by the late Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton would have gone nowhere. Obama managed to simultaneously overcome suspicions among black voters that he wasn’t really one of them and reassure white America that he is, indeed, Harvard-educated and not about to throw bombs. And his presentation of radical change from the last eight years -- in race, politics and message -- was his strongest attribute. At the end of his book, Asim plucked a quote from a New York Times article in which Tina Davis, a white political figure in Pennsylvania, summed up the political, social and cultural convergence that gave the United States its first black president: “White voters ‘had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put us in this hole.’ ”
Martelle is the author of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”
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