Black politics, reinvented

Across the country, polished African-American outsiders are upsetting the political machine. An expert explains how

Published May 12, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Cory Booker      (AP/Julio Cortez)
Cory Booker (AP/Julio Cortez)

Cory Booker’s failed 2002 campaign for mayor of Newark heralded a new type of black politician. Booker was an outsider with Ivy-league credentials who was trying to unseat a veteran urban politician who had made a name for himself during the civil rights movement. Like other "new black politicians," Booker's appeal granted him entry to the political world and helped him circumvent long-standing black democratic machines. But what does this process, which has been repeated everywhere from Washington to Alabama, tell us about our country's changing attitude towards race -- and politics?

In her new book, “The New Black Politician,” Andra Gillespie follows the career of Cory Booker, from his start as a lawyer and community organizer through his successful run for mayor and his reelection, in order to illustrate what separates the new generation of black politicians from other black leaders before them. These new black politicians seek to create the same multicultural coalition that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency, but many lose their black support and fade from the political scene.

Salon spoke with Gillespie about racial electability, Cory Booker’s senate prospects, and what black politicians have in common with Will Smith and Tyler Perry.

How have new black politicians used what you call “elite displacement” to win elected office?

It’s a theory that’s transferable to other minorities as well, be they racial or religious -- basically, groups that have experienced stereotyping in the past and have been marginalized because of these stereotypes. Elite displacement is what happens when an older generation of politicians who have largely come to power despite the stereotypes levied at them have a new generation of leaders, who are more assimilated into mainstream culture and who don’t necessarily wear the same type of ethnic or racial veneer as their predecessors, now running against them -- particularly in cities where the majority is from that same racial group. What I’m interested in is how these young politicians break through. They normally have not been socialized within the institutions in that community. They're outsiders to that community, and they’re trying to figure out a way to break into politics when all the traditional paths to power have been shut off.

What elite displacement describes is the practice by which these young African-American politicians try to circumvent the black political establishment to reach office for the first time. What they take advantage of is their access to mainstream institutions and culture, and they use that as their calling card. They may not get the support of the older black congressman, the city council, or the local political bosses, but they have access to mainstream media and their friends who have money, and they use that to amass a resource that can overwhelm the existing structure of the black political community.

Part of the reason they get so much interest and their story is so compelling is because people think of these older black politicians in terms of stereotypes. They are viewed as corrupt, ineffective, criminal and incompetent -- not quite up for technocratic leadership. And this younger group of politicians, because they bring the right qualifications and pedigree to the table, fit the bill. They fit the archetype of what white audiences want to see black leaders look like, which would be very well-spoken, not talking about race all the time, and having credentials from the right schools, and that gives them a certain cache which makes their story very compelling. It helps them get on television and helps them attract volunteers to come from outside the communities to help them out. In my book, I explore the consequences of this strategy. It’s very hard for young black politicians to develop a deep connection to their constituency. Does their strategy help them build a broader base of support? Does it help them win over some of their critics, who will still hold on to some positions of power? And what does this portend for long-term governance?

One of the things in African-American communities that should be noted is that there are tons of problems. African-American representation of those communities have not ameliorated those problems. In the 40 years of black government in Newark and similar cities, you still see high rates of unemployment, high dropout rates and very paltry health indicators. The idea that putting blacks in power will act as a panacea, will help blacks improve their physical and emotional health standing, is not really true. The subsequent question becomes: Are these new black leaders the magic bullet to gain on the progress of political equality that was achieved in the 1960s?

How are civil rights leaders -- the politicians who emerged from the civil rights movements -- limited in their ability to govern and seek higher office?

Part of this has to do with the moment that they were elected to office. They were elected because of demographic changes in the communities in which they lived. As early as the 1930s, there was a mass exodus of whites from the cities to the suburbs because of deindustrialization, but it was hastened by the riots in 1967. The white and black middle class left, leaving a city that was predominantly African-American. So the demographics of the city gave the opportunity for a black politician to win elected office. But there were other things that happened. Just because blacks were able to win positions in the city doesn’t necessarily mean that blacks in the '70s, '80s, and '90s were going to be able to win statewide office. There’s no state in the United States that is majority African-American. It creates a very hostile environment for blacks to be able to run for higher office. On top of it, there is evidence to suggest that even when blacks have held positions of power or leadership, they haven’t always been taken seriously. Earlier generations couldn’t do what President Obama has done. You can look at members of Congress who couldn’t even get their hair cut in the capitol, couldn’t eat at the dining hall where all members of congress were allowed to eat. There was still a caste system that wouldn’t even let them dream of being president.

What is a “black political entrepreneur”? Which politicians embody this term?

A black political entrepreneur is a type of young black politician who is most likely to use elite displacement. They are the type of politician who is de-racialized and who doesn’t have demonstrable ties to the black political establishment. They would be the type of person who would not be a child of the civil rights movement and wouldn’t be the mentee of a civil rights politician. We’re not talking about Jesse Jackson Jr. or anyone who inherited their political role. A black political entrepreneur is different from other types of black politicians because they have very progressive political ambitions. They are clearly itching to run for higher office. You can look at them and say, “That’s a senator, or a governor, or maybe even another president.” Black political entrepreneurs are the ones who take the most risks when running for office. They usually try to challenge older black politicians for power when most others would argue that it’s ill-advised. If you contrast Cory Booker with former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. , for instance, Harold Ford Jr. inherited a congressional seat. Black political entrepreneurs challenge strong incumbents for power instead of waiting their turn.

You compare black political entrepreneurs to Will Smith and civil rights politicians to Tyler Perry.

I’m not talking about ambition. I’m talking about crossover appeal, the degree to which people are de-racialized, and where their power comes from. Will Smith built his acting career as someone who started off in hip-hop but never had a hard edge. He was, arguably, on the cornier end of the hip-hop spectrum. When he moved into Hollywood and became an A-list star, everyone knew he was African-American, but he wasn’t cast as a black actor. He was a comedic actor, an action hero. He was somebody who wasn’t threatening and whom everybody loved. And because of that, he was able to build this amazingly successful Hollywood career.

Tyler Perry, on the other hand, is somebody who, if you look at his net worth, has done better than Will Smith, but who has been unabashedly black in terms of self-presentation and the types of projects that he’s chosen. Today, people pay attention to him in Hollywood because he was the highest-grossing actor in Hollywood last year. But he’s made that money almost solely in the African-American community. He’s been able to be successful in this niche market, and people take him seriously because he’s made a lot of money, but he’s still on the margins. The fact that he’s based in Atlanta and that he’s regularly panned by movie critics proves he’s not fully mainstream. He needs to be contended and dealt with because you cannot deny his success. There are black people who have problems with how he presents his characters. People think Madea is a stereotype and that his television show is also a stereotype. Will Smith and Tyler Perry are very powerful in their own right, but they get their currency from very different sectors of the American public, and that helps to contribute to their persona.

You provide some examples in the book of where, while vigorously campaigning against the incumbent, new black politicians end up reinforcing some negative stereotypes. 

If you look at how the story usually gets framed in the media when the black political entrepreneur runs against the black incumbent, it’s usually cast in stark terms. Good versus Evil. It also gets cast as the anachronistic civil rights warrior going against a fresh person who doesn’t wear race on their sleeve. Given some of the stereotypes that exist of blacks in terms of their intelligence and corruption -- and sometimes admittedly, the connection of some of these incumbents to corruption and incompetency -- it ends up reinforcing stereotypes of the average black leader. The stereotype is that they should not be trusted, that they can’t lead. New black politicians continually reinforce the stereotype because they keep talking about the incumbents in those terms.

The consequence of this is twofold. In these minority communities -- places where the black political entrepreneur is usually not needed -- you will see the black constituencies rally around the incumbent because they believe the attacker is racially motivated or that the fight has a classist tinge to it. They are very resistant to having their leaders attacked.

Usually the younger black politician has something very valuable to offer their community. But eventually this notion that “this person is so much better than other black leaders” ends up being constraining for the black political entrepreneur. He or she gets held to incredibly high expectations. It becomes about how fast they can commit to change. And it reinforces the idea of the black political entrepreneur as a "magical black person," as a black superhero. And the black superhero is the foil to the black villain -- instead of transcending stereotypes, we end up reinforcing them. I think the notion of the black political entrepreneur as a black superhero who is going to save inner-city communities from blight and destruction ends up reifying this notion that normal black people are too stupid to run their communities and hold office. This ends up hurting everybody. If the black political entrepreneur can’t turn a community around very quickly, then it ends up looking bad for him, and it ends up reinforcing the idea that black people cannot govern themselves.

Do you see a backlash against black political entrepreneurs happening? I think of Adrian Fenty losing his reelection race for Mayor of D.C. 

Absolutely. What’s really interesting about de-racialization theory, which underlies a lot of my work, is the strategy of black politicians reaching out beyond the black community to try to create a multiracial electoral coalition. People have always been concerned about the multiracial coalition falling apart because you can’t help but avoid race. We saw that happen with David Dinkins in New York City. Dealing with the Crown Heights riots and the Big Apple boycott, we see what would be a traditionally democratic voting bloc fall apart over race. One of the underlying assumptions of de-racialization is that black voters support black politicians. That’s a little harder to untangle when you have black-on-black elections where blacks are running against one another. And the assumption is that the two black candidates split the black vote, and the de-racialized new politician makes it up with the non-black vote.

What we’ve seen with Booker’s first mayoral race and Adrian Fenty’s loss is that you can lose enough of the black vote to lose an election. It’s a question of what the sweet spot is. Black political entrepreneurs should be comfortable not winning over some blacks. It’s just a question of how many black votes you lose. In Adrian Fenty’s case, he lost too much of the African-American vote. It then becomes a question of why. It wasn’t because of his technocratic leadership, because by all accounts he was a great leader. He left D.C. in better shape in 2010 than when he received it in 2006. He underestimated the extent to which style would be important and the extent to which people had a problem with Michelle Rhee. Style becomes really important. People don’t think that it should be important, but it is.

Black political entrepreneurs have national political ambitions. You can afford to lose some of the black vote, but if you alienate too much of it, you can lose a statewide election, which is what happened when Artur Davis ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Alabama in 2010. Black political entrepreneurs, at the end of the day, are still very very dependent on black votes. You can’t alienate the black voters, even when you disagree with them, and you can’t come off as disrespecting them or condescending to them. Especially if they would have been sympathetic and voted for you, if only you hadn’t disrespected them.

It strikes me that these politicians are setting themselves up for disappointment by promising so much change and progress during their campaigns. 

I don’t know if you’re setting yourself up for failure, but I would warn black political entrepreneurs to tone down on the messianic rhetoric and to try to separate themselves from it, because it puts undue pressure on them. One of the things that I wanted to do in the conclusion of the book is to address the aspiring Cory Booker’s out there. I want them to understand that there are consequences, both positive and negative, for every type of political decision one makes. I’m not here to tell anybody, “No.” If you’re running against somebody who you truly think is incompetent, then you should point that out. But you should definitely be more circumspect in how you criticize them, and you should do it in the most respectful way. Booker learned that between his two campaigns. They toned down the stupid rhetoric a lot between the elections because they realized how much it harmed them.

Another thing I would tell budding Cory Bookers is to really assess the resources they have at their disposal. There are people who want to be black political entrepreneurs but who don’t really have access to the Stanford and Yale and Oxford alumni directories the way Booker does. They might not have friends in high places. They might not have the same fundraising capacity. It might not make sense to use the elite displacement election strategy if you don’t have the resources. Booker could overcome a lot of the negative externalities that come with elite displacement because he had this very, very deep base in mainstream culture. If other people don’t have that, because they didn’t go to Yale or Harvard, then you might want to cultivate a different sort of persona.

Where does Cory Booker go from here?

This is my observation: At one point, it looked like people were toying around with the idea of running him for governor. But, based on the decision last year to create the Federal PAC, I surmise that now they're looking more at Frank Lautenberg’s senate seat. I think that’s a great idea. I think Booker would be a great senator. He could have the potential, with some longevity, to have a huge impact on the Senate. He could be Ted Kennedy-esque. As long as New Jersey residents are comfortable with both of their senators not being white (and hopefully no one brings that up or reminds them of it), then that’s actually really cool. If Cory were sitting with me right now and asked me, "Andra, what should I do?" I would tell him to go run for the Senate, without hesitation.


By Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.

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