The Breakthrough began its public life as a putative scandal during the 2008 presidential campaign. John McCain’s cadaverous team tried to suggest that PBS journalist Gwen Ifill could not be neutral in the debate between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden, pretty much on the strength of this forthcoming book. Extracts from it (including a frothy story in the September 2008 issue of Essence) and hype from the publishers convinced the McCain team and the right-wing blogging machine that Ifill would favor Joe Biden.
What everyone seemed to worry about, it seemed to me, was that both long-winded, windy Biden and intense, insipid Palin would pale in comparison to the witty Ifill. I was excited to read the book.
Ifill is plainly thrilled with the ascent of President Barack Obama. But Obama, for her, is not an isolated example. He exemplifies something broader: a generation of mainly Black men who have risen to positions of state power. These are also men who are not restricted to districts with a majority Black population, congressional districts and cities that have been the safe boroughs of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Conference of Black Mayors.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis are the main figures whom, along with Obama, have broken through—have made it to the higher echelons of political power. It is their remarkable journey not as individuals, but as members of a generation, that Ifill hopes to chronicle in The Breakthrough.
And she also hopes to prove that the success of these three men means whites are now comfortable electing Blacks to political office.
This might ring true in the case of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick whose 2006 electoral victory was monumental: with Blacks making up only 7 percent of the population, Massachusetts can’t be seen as a “Black seat.” Patrick won the election with 56 percent of the vote, benefitting from an inept Republican challenger, a largely Democratic population fed up with a string of hapless Republican governors (Jane Swift, Mitt Romney) and a Democratic party that for once stood behind its candidate.
But Ifill’s other two choices are not unusual in the history of Black politics. Cory Booker is the mayor of a majority Black city and Artur Davis is the Congressman from a predominantly Black district (the 7th in Alabama). None of this is to lessen the enormity of each of their triumphs, but it does make it hard to establish (apart, that is, from Obama and perhaps Deval Patrick) that whites have changed on the matter of Black political candidates.
Only Deval Patrick won more than half the white vote in any election contest (but he contested in one of the most liberal states in the United States). Obama won only 43 percent of the total white vote (no Democrat has won more than 50 percent of the white vote since 1964). Obama wins, but not so much because of a plurality of whites as much as massive majorities in the ballot box from people of color (Blacks by 96 percent, Latinos by 67 percent and Asians by 63 percent).
What this says is that people of color have become a sizable bloc in certain crucial states. Ifill ignores this, preferring to suggest that the ascent of Obama and Patrick occurs mainly because whites are now comfortable voting for Black candidates. This is partly true, but it is not the whole story.
Ifill is diverted by the idea of the breakthrough, but fortunately she is also interested in another, altogether more interesting problem: which is the debate over whether these are post-racial times, and whether these are post-racial candidates.
It is quickly apparent to her that the term “post-racial” is misleading.
What is more useful, she finds, is the concept of “post-Civil Rights” (she gets this from scholar Eddie Glaude Jr.). The term “post-Civil Rights” is now in vogue but its meaning is as yet unstable. Ifill sometimes uses it to indicate that with the victory of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964-64, the Jim Crow problems have been largely superseded, so the Civil Rights movement, strictly speaking, is now over.
This is to my mind correct, and it is because of these victories that the mass movements of that era were demobilized. Of course, if we take a longer view of the Movement, backwards to the 1910s before the suit-and-tie preachers took control of it and forward to the 1970s and on into the Black Power and community organizing era, then it is safe to say that we don’t live in a post-Movement era—just a post-Civil Rights era, with its attendant organizations (the SCLC, the NAACP and others) trying to find their feet. They look anachronistic because they haven’t always been ready to come to terms with the change.
Ifill takes refuge in the simple theory that what we have is a generational change, that this younger lot of leaders are more in tune with the new realities. But this is not true. There are many of the older generation who identified the change and there are many of the younger generation who are oblivious to it. The recognition of this new post-Civil Rights reality is not generational, but political.
Obama, Patrick, Booker—all of them recognize the shift and none of them deny the resilience of racism. Obama tells Ifill, “Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone away. It is not an accident that the African Americans experience high crime rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history. We have never fully come to grips with that history;” Ifill makes little of this remarkable statement.
What Obama, Patrick, Booker and others tell us is that they are fully aware of the new advantages of the post-Jim Crow era, but they are not blind to the glaring inequities and injustices that persevere in our society. Where they appear to be blindsided is on their analysis of what is possible in this new era, on how to engender a racial justice politics in the new grammar of post-Civil Rights era.
While Obama’s victory is without a doubt an enormous achievement, it is itself a stubby brown finger in the eye of a lingering white supremacy.
The chapter in The Breakthrough on Cory Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark is perhaps the most interesting because it forthrightly reveals the contradictions that plague American society, and it also shows us how intellectually impoverished our leaders are to confront the challenges.
Booker is a remarkable person, no doubt. He is on the bullet-ridden streets trying to make a difference in his adopted and difficult city. The Wire could as well have been set in Newark as in Baltimore. New Jersey’s most populous city is resilient against odds that often appear insurmountable: when Ken Gibson, the first Black mayor of Newark, took office in 1970, he announced that it “may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation,” largely because of the steady tide of deindustrialization.
Booker’s attempts to undo the image of Newark are not matched by any project to actually change the conditions of life in the city. There is the failed attempt to get private firms to hire ex-offenders and the attempt to get the police on every corner to prevent the large number of murders; there is Booker’s own example as a big brother to three teenage boys. “I mean, hell, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Booker tells Ifill.
It is plain that Booker is not corrupt, which is itself an achievement in today’s municipal politics, and it is clear that he is sincere. What is also clear is the impoverishment of the agenda for reform of our cities, particularly in this financial climate.
If Ifill had gone elsewhere than electoral politics she might have found people at work on these real challenges, most of which dwarf the achievement of winning office. Here too she would have found Black men, for sure, but also Black women, Latinos and Latinas, Asian men and women, Native American men and women, and indeed, White men and women. These are the people who Obama met as a community organizer, and they are the folk often featured in ColorLines. None of them make a cameo in The Breakthrough, even as they are often the ones with the most interesting ideas about how to transform our cities. If Booker listened to them, for instance, he might be able to use his talents more effectively.
Here’s a short primer: let the city of Newark seize whatever abandoned property is in the city limits; use funds from the city budget, from the stimulus bill and elsewhere to hire people from the neighborhoods to refurbish these buildings into community centers, day care centers, local schools, indoor farmers’ markets and petty workshops; turn the empty lots into gardens to grow edible crops and flowers, which can be sold. Put the unions and community organizations into the mix here, using their organizational capacity and experience as well as their budgets into the reconstruction of their urban landscape. Dramatic use of the people’s will might help break the apathy and helplessness that leads to criminality, drug-use and poor nutrition.
Obama and others have joined with Bill Cosby to attack the decline of inner-city Black life, but what they don’t address is that these symptoms (crime, fast food) stem from a larger disease, which is the failure of a racialized and gendered finance capital to integrate us into a human society that is pledged to the long-term interests of people rather than the short-term interest of profits.
Booker tells Ifill, “What makes the hip-hop generation great is our improvisation, our innovation. Even though we’ll sample from the old, we need to write our own beats and rhythms and move forward.”
The beats are being written. Now it is for the elected leaders to follow those innovations rather than to succumb to the logic of triangulation: more police, less public services, more school vouchers, less jobs.
Vijay Prashad teaches at Trinity College, in Hartford, CT (the city with the first Puerto Rican mayor in the north-east, and one who has recently joined that fraternity of elected officials indicted for taking favors). Prashad’s most recent book is The Darker Nations (2008).