Photo byNigel Parry for The New York Times. From left: Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia; Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina; Representative John Lewis of Georgia; and Representative Artur Davis of Alabama.
Written for New York Times Magazine by Matt Bai and set to run in print on Sunday, “Is Obama The End of Black Politics” is about the concept of post-racial/civil rights politics and the divide between the old guard and the upstart young black politicians of today who feel the old methods and rules on race no longer apply. One story in particular from Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, really drew me into the article. (If you can’t open the article, try this second link, here.)
For black Americans born in the 20th century, the chasms of experience that separate one generation from the next— those who came of age before the movement, those who lived it, those who came along after — have always been hard to traverse. Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.” In any community shadowed by oppression, pride and bitterness can be hard to untangle.
This made me think of my great-grandmother who saw her youngest daughter go to college and have a career that she could never have. See the pride my grandparents had in my mother, who made it out of poverty, out of rural Arkansas and also see what was denied to them because of segregation and discrimination. I thought of my parents who watched me live a content and normal childhood, where I never went hungry and everything was already paid for, including college.
My father often remarked that when he went off to college it was a step up because he got his own dresser and didn’t have to share a bed with his brother anymore. But for me, a crazy roommate in a tiny room with a communal toilet for the dorm was a step down.
The lengthy article continued to get more and more intriguing with interviews with young black mayors and other politicians, like Mike Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia who endorsed Hillary Clinton during the primaries and has a complex relationship with his black constituents. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is also in the article, bristling at yet another question about Jesse Jackson’s “nutcracker” comments.
The piece also gets into the similarity of now to political shifts of more than 20 years ago when Jackson ran for president and black politicians who didn’t support him were eventually usurped by younger, more savvy talent. Bai wrote how there was a price to pay for stagnation and impeding the march of history.
This quote from black political pollster Cornell Belcher is particularly telling in the shift of attitude.
“Barack Obama is the sum of their struggle. He’s the sum of their tears, their fights, their marching, their pain. This opportunity is the sum of that.
“But it’s like watching something that you’ve been working on all your life sort of come together right before your eyes, and you can’t see it,” Belcher said. “It’s like you’ve been building the Great Wall of China, and you finally put that last stone in. And you can’t see it. You just can’t see the enormity of it.”
I have been reluctant to criticize my “elders” too harshly, specifically those who actually did sacrifice their bodies and lives for the movement. I’ve always been willing to be patient with them while at the same time frustrated with the inertia the movement has been in since desegregation. (The article addresses that issue to, specifically in relations to the NAACP.)
There are new problems, serious, dire problems, that aren’t being adequately addressed. Too many times Civil Rights activists are wasting time trying to censure shock jocks with mock outrage and guilt-baiting rather than deal with the real outrage that is our high incarceration rate, our crumbling cities, our horrible schools, our lack of jobs, our lack of health care, our rising HIV infections, our low rate of marriage and our high number of children born out of wedlock.
These issues don’t involve something obvious like a white person calling us “nigger.” But it seems like outrage and action can only be amassed when the magic degrading code words of bigotry are uttered. At some point you have to see that it’s time to stop fighting the last war and start developing techniques to fight the new one.
At the same time, I don’t like it when people greip that the “old folks” need to step back and let youth take over. It’s not that our elders don’t need a kick in the pants. They most assuredly do. But it seems foolish to me to throw away our institutionalized knowledge, the representatives of our history. They still have a use. And traditionally, elders are valued for the knowledge when they yield it with skill and patience.
And others aren’t trying to slay their grandpas. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — former Klansman, Iraq War hater and, now, ironically, Obama supporter — has been in the senate since Moses saw the burning bush. Despite his age and love of pork-filled earmarks, no one is trying to euthanize the man because they value what he has built (ironically with government pork). A culture needs it’s elders, from Sen. Ted Kennedy to former President Jimmy Carter. Even old coots like Byrd serve a purpose.
Those black politicians who aren’t doing a service to their constituency, who are not behaving in a manner that is forward thinking, deserve to be voted out. Voters should give the new man or woman on the block a chance because that is out our system thrives and improves. But I also don’t think we should unilaterally throw away these dinosaurs of another era. Even the ones who sound nutters at times (like Jackson or Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem or former Ambassador Andrew Young.) They still have a use, a purpose. I would hope that both sides would realize that they need one another to reach their goals.
And I would hope that the old generation would relent, celebrate th
e successes of these young leaders — who are, after all, the fruits of their labor — and open up their minds to change.
For more Jack and Jill Politics also wrote about this article.