“It is easy to overlook change when it happens ….” (Ifill 2009) p. 14. With this phrase, Gwen Ifill sets the theme for her analysis of what is happening with black political leadership. It is a tale of what she calls “sandpaper politics.” The phrase is meant to connote the friction which occurs in the shift of power from an older generation of black political leaders to an emerging one and the resistance of some in white society to any black political advance. All of this is crosscut by gender conflicts. It is also a reminder of the importance of keeping up with contemporary history.
Ifill was born in New York and is a distinguished reporter, perhaps best known for having been the moderator of PBS’s Washington Week in Review since 1999. Her father, a minister, was from Panama and her mother was from Barbados and she is the fifth of six children. Among other things she has five honorary doctorates, is on the board of the Harvard Institute of Politics and the Committee to Protect Journalists. She lives in Washington but has Maryland ties since she is also on the board of the University’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism. She has worked for major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. From 1981 to 1984, she worked for the Baltimore Sun and made her first TV appearance while at the Sun in a show called Maryland News Wrap.
This is a reporter’s history. She knows the difference between analysis and opinion and sticks to analysis. She obtained her information by interviewing major political figures and reading newspapers. The political spectrum is covered from the low-level city officials to President Obama, who is a centerpiece in this work. It is a way of doing historical research that is often overlooked. Her Baltimore experience is interesting and played a role in the genesis of this book since she saw it as being on the verge of change. In 1981, the city was becoming increasingly black but the political leadership was all white. The inner harbor had been redeveloped but it was a Potemkin village concealing the city where living conditions were wretched. She described the mayor this way, “Schaefer, an unmarried curmudgeon used to getting his own way, suspicious of change. And he was doubly suspicious of any call for change that seemed rooted in racial claims. That meant he would be suspicious of me, a black woman whose job was to ask him questions he did not like. As he growled and snapped at me—and, honestly at most other reporters to—I came to realize what I was witnessing: the friction that is a necessary by-product of sandpaper change (p.4).”
In 1983, Billy Murphy challenged Schaefer in the primary. She describes his campaign as inept even though many national figures came to Baltimore to support him. The positive result of this campaign was that it pointed to the possibility of change. Clarence “Du” Burns and Kurt Schmoke were the next mayors and Wayne Curry became Prince Georges County executive. Today all the political leadership of Baltimore is black and much of it is female. Ifill notes that this is a unique phenomenon.
These elections signified the change that was under way. In 1988, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign was based on race. It did not get very far. She credits Jackson with demonstrating that it was possible for a black person to aspire to the highest office in the land. With her sharp perception, she also notes that, “Jackson’s supporters were made up of far more than the traditional civil right constituency. They were, in fact, the left-wing version of the very same people who flocked to rallies that year for another man of the cloth, Pat Robertson (p. 8).” Jackson realized too late that he had to broaden his appeal. None of the successful politicians interviewed for this book made this miscalculation.
One of the things that this book clearly demonstrates is that the “black vote” doesn’t reflect a community where everyone thinks the same way and votes the same way. Despite variations from individual to individual, the new generation of black politicians as a group are from middle class backgrounds, very intelligent, well-educated, willing to challenge what others had only talked about, not willing to wait as most of the older generation of black leaders urged, and realized they had to make coalitions across the whole racial and political spectrum to win.
The last two items in this list most typify what was happening as this new generation of political leaders emerged on the scene. Every one of the politicians in this book was cautioned by older leaders, most of whom had been militant in working to achieve civil rights, to be patient, wait your turn and other gradualist sentiments. In September 2007 on an Atlanta TV interview show Andrew Young said, “I’d like Barack Obama to be president — in 2016.Black men who reach too far too fast, die early. It is not a matter of being inexperienced. It is a matter of being young (p. 34). Ifill considered it amazing that this could come from a man who had fought such tough civil rights battles. She goes on to note that he didn’t know much about Obama and made incorrect factual statements about him.
That most of the black civil rights and political leadership, the Rev. Joseph Lowery excepted, would turn out to be James Faulkner gradualists is one of the most astonishing things that Ifill points to in this historical change that isn’t being noticed.
The point about the necessity of coalition politics is the biggest mark of change between the old and the new generation. Except in racially gerrymandered districts, black politicians have to have white votes to win. The new breed of black politician had to find a way to attract white voters and not lose credibility in the black community. All of the successful ones did this. It was not an easy task. Ifill points out that the successful black crossover actors and media people such as Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Denzel Washington have a persona that is not threatening to white people. The politicians had to deal with this plus the constant questioning about identity in terms of questions such as, “Is he black enough?” or “Is he too black?” Dick Gregory did a routine at Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union conference in 2008 where he stated that Bill Clinton had been called the first “black president” but that many said Barack Obama was not black enough. He brought the house down with this comment, “What the heck was that about (p. 165).” [I suspect the comment was a little juicier.] To try to unravel that in a campaign was a no win situation. What the new black politicians managed to do was be clear about their identity without being aggressive about it.
Arriving at this balance between community connection and broad appeal across racial lines took work and a lot of time to cultivate. President Obama tried to avoid discussing race as he developed his campaign. So did all the other politicians reported on in this book. In his speech before the 2004 Democratic National Convention Obama said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America…there’s the United States of America (p. 64).” Ifill notes that this had echoes of a memorable speech that Barbara Jordan gave to the 1976 convention. And if I venture an opinion: If the incomparable Jordan had lived, she might have gotten to the presidency before Obama.
When the prejudiced rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright received wide circulation Obama’s hand was forced. He cut his ties to him. In a speech at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in the summer of 2007 he said, “I am sympathetic to efforts to have a racial conversation in this country. But I find that generally there is a lot of breast -beating and hand-wringing and then not much follow-through. The kind of conversation I’m interested in having about race is very concrete. Do we have a criminal justice system that is color-blind? If we do not, how do we fix it?…My belief is that African Americans, like other racial minorities in this country, are much more interested in deeds than words. And that is the kind of leadership I want to show as president of the United States (p.63).”
With words like these Obama and the other politicians were able to make a broad appeal while still maintaining standing in the black community. Obama, more than the other politicians had an additional hurdle to deal with in his campaign, that was gender. Most of the old guard and several of the newer guard supported Clinton. This support was made up of people who thought Obama should wait, those who did not want to surrender power and those who stood by party loyalty. Added to this were the feminists. They felt it was time for a woman president. By the end of the campaign Obama had won over most women and was ahead of Clinton in gender polls. This was not so for the hard core. Gloria Steinem, for example said that gender was the last bastion where freedom had not been won. She complained that black men had the vote before women and had gotten power positions before any women. Ifill wrote, “To Steinem and an entire generation of feminists who came of political age in the 1960s Obama seemed to be yet another man cutting the line (p.73).” Dedicated feminists and other special interest groups have been a source of difficulty for his administration because they press only for their issues and do not provide the unity necessary to pass such things as medical reform.
What characterizes the new black politicians is that they now have power inside the establishment and are not seeking to batter doors down. When the batterers got elected, they did not adjust to the power they now had and tended to continue with the same attacking rhetoric or tactics. The advent of black politicians who have power and understand how to use it is the unseen change Ifill has pointed to. It is a major change on the American political scene. In the last sentence of the book Ifill writes, “But there is little question that we in this country may be reaching the end of the ‘firsts.’ Perhaps breakthroughs are on the verge of becoming enough of a part of the national political landscape that at some point we will cease noticing them altogether (p.246).” Despite this hopeful note, she wonders if this can be sustained. There are examples that bear examination. When baseball was first integrated, we saw two generations of black superstars. Now the number of blacks in the big leagues is declining and other sports are attracting black athletes. Occupations where the chances of being a success are low have always attracted minorities — witness the number of Italians, Jews and blacks in show business. Arthur Ashe famously said that he would never put a tennis racket in the hands of an inner-city kid. What he meant was that he did not want to raise false hopes.
Many of these newly successful risk taking black politicians made considerable money before entering politics and all of them could considerably increase their income by leaving politics. Be that as it may, what we have now is a new generation of black politicians who respect the marches, demonstrations, and social action of their forebears but who practice a politics that appeals across race and gender ranks and is often centrist.
There is the question of whether this work’s message will be absorbed by social work. At present, the basic documents of NASW and CSWE still speak the language of the past generation of civil rights efforts. I would hope many in the profession read this book. It is well written, contains much useful and important information, and a series of short vignettes on politicians at all levels of government. I wonder if paying attention to the message of the new politicians will be as wrenching for social work as it was for the old generation of civil rights leaders and politicians.
Ifill, G. (2009). The breakthrough: politics and race in the age of Obama. New York, Doubleday.
Author Bio: Dr. Harris Chaiklin earned his Ph.D. in Medical Sociology from Yale University in 1961. Out of numerous honors he has received throughout his lifetime some of the more recent include: A 2001 award for Social Work Pioneer – NASW, and a 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, Maryland NASW. Between 1962 and 1998, Dr. Chaiklin was a professor at the University of Maryland as well as Assistant Dean for Informatics and the 1998 Professor emeritus. To read Dr. Chaiklin’s entire Vita, please download the free PDF of this article, the Vita is included.