In this coming Sunday New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai explores how Obama’s election could spur the "end of black politics," at least through a traditional civil-rights model, while also causing a "precipitous decline of black influence" in U.S. politics. He interviews old-school members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who largely backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries; new-school black politicians like Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and the emerging activists now experimenting with new organizing strategies — like the black netroots crew at ColorofChange, that helped scuttle the Fox News Democratic debate over allegations of political and racial bias in the channel’s programming.
It’s a thorough and important article, worth reading in full, but for those who can’t spare 8,000 words this weekend, I’ll run through some key points. Bai nails the background, reminding readers that the black community is not monolithic:
The generational transition that is reordering black politics … has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year’s Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there. For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama’s candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream….
One telling difference between black representatives [the younger] generation and the more senior set in Washington is how they initially viewed the role of race in this year’s primaries. Older members of the Congressional Black Caucus assumed, well into the primary season, that a black candidate wouldn’t be able to win in predominantly white states. This, after all, had been their lifelong experience in politics….
Then things get screwy. Bai argues that Obama’s potential election, as a black candidate, could compromise black issues and undermine equal opportunity policies in one swoop:
Should they win in November, Obama and these new advisers will confront an unfamiliar conundrum in American politics, which is how to be president of the United States and, by default, the most powerful voice in black America at the same time. … [some worry that] the end of black politics, if that is what we are witnessing, might also mean the precipitous decline of black influence. The argument here is that a President Obama, closely watched for signs of parochialism or racial resentment, would have less maneuvering room to champion spending on the urban poor, say, or to challenge racial injustice. What’s more, his very presence in the Rose Garden might undermine the already tenuous case for affirmative action in hiring and school admissions.
First, how exactly would any person’s "very presence in the Rose Garden" undermine an entire public policy?
Affirmative action, which aims to level the playing field for women and minorities, does not expire just because one minority is elected. It is not weakened when a woman is nominated to the Supreme Court. And it should not be limited by potential complaints of "parochialism," whatever that means.
Obama’s candidacy may indeed mean a new route for black political success, as Bai discusses, as politicians who happen to be black define their roles on largely non-racial terms, in contrast to civil-rights veterans who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. But it is a stretch to assume that progress automatically upends national policy — the U.S. military won’t abandon its use of affirmative action any time soon, for example — or that the same "post-racial" politicians are preempted from helping the "urban poor" or challenging "racial injustice." If anything, "post-racial" leaders, like Obama, may find they have a bit more "maneuvering room" than politicians from the civil-rights era. If he’s successful, there’s plenty of room when you’re moving around the Oval Office.