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What’s So New About Obama?

The supposedly unique senator is actually just one among many

By Jarret A. Zafran

People throughout the nation are going ga-ga for Barack Obama. Many see his novel politics of hope as the cure for a toxic Washington culture of partisanship and corruption. What many fail to realize is that a number of politicians just like Obama have recently sprung up throughout the country.

They have been called “post-racial” or “post-civil rights” leaders, and have had to contend with the charge that they are “not black enough.” They are mostly Ivy League-educated law school graduates, under the age of 50. They preach a message of optimism and unity. This new generation of young black mayors, governors, congressmen, and senators includes 2006 senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78, and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis ’90.

Welcome to the club, Barack.

While all Democrats, these men tend not to fit the typical Democratic mold. Booker supports school vouchers, Obama champions tort reform, and Ford and Davis oppose same-sex marriage. Unlike many of their African-American predecessors, the mayors appointed non-black public schools chancellors (Fenty) and police chiefs (Booker) to govern majority-black cities.

Until now, the undisputed leader of the black political community has been the “civil-rights era urban crusader.” From former presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to veteran congressmen John Conyers (D-Mich.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and SNCC Founder John Lewis (D-Ga.), there is a proud tradition of civil-rights era politicians emerging from majority-black areas to positions of great power. For them, being black is what defines their identity, and—more importantly—their politics.

But they have never achieved a high level of non-black support and are still considered polarizing figures in many white communities. For some of these leaders, like John Conyers, the emergence of a more nationally electable black leader is seen as the next step in their historic march. For others, notably Al Sharpton, these “post-racial” black leaders are simply pandering to whites and leaving blacks behind.

Jason C.B. Lee ’08, president emeritus of the Harvard Black Students Association, wrote in an e-mail that Obama “is a leader who is black, but he is not a Black Leader.” For Lee and many Americans, the distinction between the two rests upon whether that person defines themselves by their racial identity. A familiar historical parallel would be John F. Kennedy ’40, who was not considered a Catholic politician, but rather a politician who happened to be Catholic.

In the case of Obama, this distinction is further complicated by his background as half-Kenyan and half-white. As Lee pointed out, “he is not the inheritor of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights struggles,” and thus, for certain black voters, “there is an ‘easy for you to say’ attitude” toward Obama’s belief in national reconciliation.

Obama clearly expressed how his post-racial consciousness manifests itself politically in his now-famous 2004 convention speech, when he said, “there is no black America and white America, there is only the United States of America.” Reverend Al might see it differently.

Sharpton has said, “The thing that gets me is that when you get some black leaders who are not civil-rights leaders, whether it is Barack Obama or Colin Powell or Tiger Woods, people act like they did that all by themselves, that they opened the door for themselves.”

The recent tragic events in Jena, Louisiana have demonstrated the touchy dynamics that post-civil rights black leaders must contend with. Obama seemed to shy away from bold statements of racism concerning the Jena Six, saying it “isn’t a matter of black and white, it’s a matter of right and wrong.” Instead, he attempted to make it a national issue, and not just a black one: “It is not just an offense to the people of Jena or to the African-American community, it is an offense to the ideals we hold as Americans.” In light of these remarks, Jesse Jackson stated, “He’s acting like he’s white.”

In the 2008 election, the introduction of this new generation of black leaders has caused a realignment and split within the black community. In Obama’s camp, Jesse Jackson, despite the aforementioned shot he took at Obama, continues to support the Illinois senator for the Democratic presidential nomination. Meanwhile, black politicians such as New York Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) are supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). In the entertainment world, Oprah supports Obama, while Clinton counts Magic Johnson among her followers.

Obama, as part of this new political group, has the potential to change the entire demographic dynamic of politics for a long time. His candidacy provides the first big test for this new type of black leader nationally, and his results may portend future success or failure for others looking to similarly expand their representation and run for higher office.

Just remember that Barack Obama is not unique. His politics are not revolutionary and his message is not distinctive. In reality, Obama is simply the most visible representative of a new category of black leaders in America.

Jarret Zafran ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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