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Breakthrough in the age of Obama

AUTHOR Gwen Ifill addresses the role that race played in the presidential election of 2008, and what it means for the future of American politics, in "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," the first in an avalanche of studies of the new president.

The book received a flash of pre-publication publicity in October when supporters of Senator John McCain cited it as evidence that Ifill, the managing editor and moderator for "Washington Week" on PBS and a senior correspondent for "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," was too partisan to moderate the vice-presidential debate between Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin. The storm passed as it became clear that Ifill's project had long been in the works, its focus less on Obama than on the cadre of up-and-coming African-American politicians she argued were transforming American politics.

The men and women Ifill terms "breakthrough politicians" - or what the New Yorker editor David Remnick, using Obama's own coinage, has called "the Joshua generation" - are the children of the civil rights movement. Born in the 1960s and '70s, they grew up in "a world shaped by access instead of denial." They come from middle-class families, attend elite universities, and are more likely to enter politics through business than activism (from the suites rather than the streets, in the words of one).

Ifill rightly dismisses the notion that America has become a "postracial" country, but acknowledges the insight of Obama's adviser David Axelrod that "the story of this race is that race didn't play the decisive role that people thought it would." Axelrod describes Obama's "race-neutral strategy as quite simply "a function of math": electing an African-American in a country where African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population required a candidate who appealed to non-black voters. "As countless new black leaders have discovered, the key to breaking through often lies in just such a crossover - putting whites at ease without alienating blacks," Ifill writes.

The book is structured loosely around four prominent figures. Cory Booker, Newark's mayor, an all-American tight end with degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Yale, has presided over an extraordinary reduction in his city's crime rate; Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor, a Harvard educated lawyer from Chicago's South Side, who became the state's first African-American governor "without as much as a dogcatcher's election under his belt;" Congressman Artur Davis, a friend of Obama's who side stepped both Alabama's black and white political establishments, while fending off attacks by the likes of Al Sharpton ("Everybody that is our color is not our kind," he lectured the East Birmingham Church of God); and, of course, Obama himself.

To Ifill's credit, she reports beyond these luminaries, drilling down to less-well-known African-American politicians on the state and local levels. We meet Lisa Borders, the Atlanta City Council president, who battles accusations that she is not "black enough." South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers sees more commonality than difference among his underprivileged constituents. "If you're poor and black in South Carolina or poor and white in South Carolina, you face basically the same issues," which are inequalities in health care and education. Her point is clear. While Obama is the most visible member of the breakthrough generation, he is hardly alone. "The bench is deep," Ifill writes, "crammed elbow to elbow with mayors, state law makers and other rising stars poised to grab at the next brass ring."

"The Breakthrough" argues that the new generation of black politicians presents a twofold challenge: to American politics at large, and to the black political establishment in particular. "Armed with their college degrees, their private-sector backgrounds and their own ideas of how to gain and hold on to power, these young leaders are often finding that the biggest hurdles to leadership exist at home," she writes. It turns out that the Moses generation, what the Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb calls "the civil rights gerontocracy," won't give up power without a fight. Things get especially nasty when a newcomer refuses to "wait his turn" and challenges a black incumbent. The mistake breakthrough politicians make, Sharpton tells Ifill, is they think they can "take a shot at civil rights leadership and we ain't gonna shoot back."

The policy implications of this new movement are potentially enormous. According to Ifill, breakthrough politicians rely more on pragmatic political coalitions than on racial solidarity, especially when they run for state and national positions. While their elders were elected in "elaborately drawn Congressional districts that maximize the black vote," they court white and Latino voters in contests outside those districts. As the Columbia University professor Manning Marable has noted, the percentage of African-American state legislators who won election in predominantly white districts rose from 16 to 30 percent between 2001 and 2008.

The fact that Obama received 67 percent of the Latino and 43 percent of the white vote (two percentage points more than John Kerry in 2004), leads Ifill to wonder whether gerrymandering is still necessary. "If whites will vote for blacks, the need for elaborately drawn Congressional districts that maximize the black vote declines accordingly," she writes. Julius Chambers, a former director of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund, says, "At some point we have to re-examine the kinds of things we had to do in order to get the Corys and Obamas." The question, of course, is if that time has come.

Axelrod's "race-neutral" strategy succeeded in 2006, when his client Deval Patrick became the first black governor of Massachusetts, winning 56 percent of the vote in a state where African-Americans are barely 7 percent of the population. And it evidently worked in the 2006 Washington mayoral race, in which Adrian Fenty became the first mayor to win every single district in the racially polarized city. Their "revolutionary" tactics? "Appealing to black voters with the same arguments used to convince white ones," Ifill writes.

Breakthrough politicians "subscribe to a formula driven as much by demographics as by destiny. When population shifts occur, through fair housing laws, affirmative action and school desegregation rulings, political power is challenged as well," Ifill writes. However, she fails to consider another development that is likely to hasten their progress. As noted by the journalist Michael Tomasky, America's white population is projected to drop from 68 percent to 61 percent between now and 2020, and then fall to 50 percent by 2050. Combine that with the savvy strategies of Obama and company, it is possible that the Joshua generation may become the defining force in a new era of American politics.


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