Young, Black, and Post-Civil Rights

On a blustery winter afternoon in January 2005, I went to see Harold Ford Jr. in his congressional office to talk about his upcoming campaign for the U.S. Senate. He guessed he would need about $12 million for the campaign. In terms of actual hurdles, though, he expected to be more disadvantaged by being a Democrat than by being African American.

I was quietly, but completely, blown away.

Had the country changed that much? Was race not the biggest, most confusing totem on the American political horizon? I understood that in 2004 Barack Obama had been elected to the Senate. I understood about the New South. I was in Virginia when Doug Wilder became lieutenant governor, and I had covered the campaign when he became the first black governor elected in the nation's history. But even with the most generous benefit of the doubt, Ford was still talking about Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan was born, where Martin Luther King Jr. died, and where only two black people have ever been elected to Congress, both of them named Harold Ford.

History takes the slow boat and the long way out. Indeed, to the extent that the South has grown increasingly hostile to Democrats for more than a generation, it was the party's positions on race and civil rights that made it so unpalatable to so many Southern whites.

Yet it was clear that Ford, a Southerner, was absolutely serious.

So how much has the country changed? This is the question of the moment as we watch the mutations in our national racial DNA triggered by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Obama, we are reminded constantly, is a singular political talent. But he is in many ways the full flowering of a strain of up-tempo, non-grievance, American-Dream-In-Color politics. His counterparts are young, Ivy League professionals, heirs to the civil-rights movement who are determined to move beyond both the mood and the methods of their forebears.

Where their predecessors went to historically black colleges and universities and often became ministers, this generation of leaders, born in the 1960s and 1970s, went to law school and began building political resumés. Ford went to Penn as an undergrad and law school at Michigan; his father studied mortuary science and went into the family's funeral-home business before going into politics.

These new leaders are not what used to be called race men. They argue, somewhat convincingly, that they don't need to concern themselves primarily with the uplift of their race. They appeal to black voters, to be sure, but to white ones as well. They talk about income inequality, not black unemployment. They rail against inadequate educational opportunities, not the endemic poverty in black neighborhoods that results. They attack globalization and outsourcing, not necessarily the loss of high-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs that built and sustained large working- and middle-class black communities after World War II.

And they don't want to be just mayors or congressmen from majority-black districts. They want to be governors, senators, and presidents. They look like Ford, Obama, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. They resemble Anthony Brown, the African American lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Artur Davis, a congressman from Alabama, both of whom, like Obama, graduated from Harvard Law School. They look like the Rhodes Scholar mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, who is often accused of not being black enough, and like Adrian Fenty, the new mayor of Washington, D.C., who appointed the first nonblack public-schools chancellor in 40 years. They are mostly Democrats, but they also include a handful of Republicans -- Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for the Senate in 2006, and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts -- who as a matter of ideology have been preaching that the old racial calculus ought to be a less prominent feature in our politics and our lives.

"It is happening as a matter of inevitability," insists Davis, who is considering a run for governor of Alabama in 2010. His odds are long, but more importantly, he is on a short list of very serious candidates, and his race is no longer the inherent bar to victory it once had been.

Much has changed for the black politician. African Americans, despite their loyalty to the Democrats, are no longer united by the urgent and singular need to end racial injustice. And white Americans are far more open to black candidates than ever before, opening up a far wider array of public offices than was available a generation ago. This has allowed the new black politician to craft a message that appeals to a broader constituency, a message that is not steeped in race. "Why not talk about the American Dream, that is a dream that is shared by black and white and brown … Americans?" asks Brown.

Compelled to reach beyond what is perceived as their natural political base, these candidates and their message may hold the keys to the future of the Democratic Party. It is a message that eschews divisions, particularly racial ones; it taps into an optimism, real or manufactured, that we are all in this together, full of possibility; and it avoids the negative and what detractors call victimhood. Patrick's 2006 campaign slogan in Massachusetts was, "Together We Can," and it is no coincidence that Patrick had the same political consultants as Obama, whose 2004 senate-campaign slogan was, "Yes, We Can."

This is, in essence, the message of the Democratic Party, which has been accused, sometimes fairly, of being less a party than a collection of interest groups. And there may be no more treacherous ground for a Democratic candidate to traverse than addressing the concerns of black voters, crucial to any success, while not seeming beholden to them. Actually, the job may be easier for black Democratic politicians, who can preach togetherness with a reduced burden of having to establish their bona fides with black voters.

Obama is doing all this, but he is not the first. When I met with Ford in 2005, he was 34 and had been elected to the House five times, each time with between 60 percent and 80 percent of the vote, from his majority-black district in Memphis. His father, Harold Ford Sr., had held that seat for 22 years before him. But the younger Ford was moving on, building himself into the prototype crossover black candidate -- moderate, affable, eloquent -- who would win state and national elections.

It was, after all, four years before Obama's big speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that Al Gore chose Ford to deliver the keynote address at the party's convention in Los Angeles. Two years later, in a move that many deemed reckless, Ford challenged Nancy Pelosi for party leader in the House. He got crushed, but for someone who had already been thinking about a run for the Senate, it likely did not hurt him at home to take on one of the premier liberal faceplates of the party.

He was a man in full. And despite criticism that he was not progressive enough or that he was in the thrall of a pandering, unprincipled centrism that was killing the Democratic Party, it seemed clear that Ford's was a promising political future. His 2006 campaign was not a sacrificial one. Desperate to retake control of the Senate, Democrats were going to cast their lot with an African American in the South for one of the only open GOP seats of the cycle.

"The race issue is big," he told me, "but the biggest issue I face is being a Democrat."

Clearly America has changed. Who can deny the enormity of racial progress in the 150 years since the Dred Scott decision or in the 50 years since the Little Rock Nine, or even in the 15 years since Rodney King pleaded helplessly, "Can we all get along?" Ford refers to himself as part of the "diversity generation" that grew up valuing difference rather than mediating racial strife. They've lived the dream, and represent a generation of black Americans who do not feel cut off from the larger society. Indeed, Obama's raising $33 million in three months is the very definition of this progress.

"The country has evolved on race," Davis says. "I think in the next 15 years there will be six to 10 African Americans who, if their careers take the right turns, will be in position to contend for the presidency. That's breathtaking."

In all likelihood, they will be less liberal and more centrist than those who came before them. Ford opposes gay marriage and supported the war in Iraq. Davis is anti-abortion and pro-gun. Obama, who comes from a liberal city in a Democratic state, also opposes gay marriage, and he angered many progressives and party members when, in his first few weeks in the Senate, the new liberal champion voted for a tort-reform bill that was one of the president's top priorities.

There is open and often bitter speculation about whether this new breed had to pay too great a price for its success, by distancing itself from the causes and crusades that advance the interests of black people. There is little evidence of that in substance, but the shift in tone and perspective troubles some. "The subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say," writer Amina Luqman opined in The Washington Post, about Obama's avoidance of difficult historical questions on race. "It's in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It's how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich."

John Conyers, the 40-year House veteran from Detroit, sees them as the organic next step in a long, historic march, but notes that "some of them are not as progressive as they should be from my point of view."

And while Conyers is not among them, there are those who see in that less progressive approach a calculating cynicism to pander to whites by distancing blacks. "Some of these guys have exploited that in a political sense, intentionally or not, to appeal to white voters," says the Rev. Al Sharpton, an old-time agitator.

Still, many say that these political changes are natural and positive development. "They are what we wanted to happen," writer, scholar, and veteran activist Roger Wilkins told the Associated Press about the new black politicians. "You are getting some of the real fruits of the civil-rights movement. I don't view them as in opposition to us; but people born in 1961 see the world differently than people born in 1931."

If black politicians are allowed to practice a different kind of politics in America today than a generation ago, the reasons can be reduced to two essential factors: Black voters have broader interests and more diverse political demands, and white voters are increasingly open-minded about what their leaders should look like.

African American home ownership is at an all-time high. In 2006, 81 percent of African Americans older than 25 had graduated from high school, compared with 44 percent in 1976, or 28 percent in 1966. Poverty among blacks has dropped from 41.8 percent in 1966 to about 23 percent in 2005. Blacks are the only group among whom voter turnout is rising. And the election of African Americans to public office has taken off: In 1970 there were 1,469 black elected officials in the United States, while today there are more than 9,100. There is no missing the historical irony in the fact that Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana top the list of states that have elected the most blacks.

Those officials, in some ways, are evidence of victories in fights that need not be refought. "We could not get past those threshold inclusion issues," says Davis. "We could not be talking about health-care disparities in 1965, when people could not even vote."

But white voters have changed, too, says David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington focused on African American issues, and this has allowed African American voters to seek offices representing constituencies much wider that an all-black ward or a majority-black city or congressional district. "White voters have changed so that they are willing to support, and strongly support, black candidates, and black candidates … are now offering a vision, an agenda, a politics where they are trying to appeal to all voters, and which more white voters are willing to accept."

In 2006 Ford ran a Senate campaign that appeared to show that race was no longer the dominant and decisive issue it once had been in American political culture -- until, that is, race did Ford in. Ford's campaign followed the overall Democratic playbook: He talked about high gas prices, economic unfairness, the failed war in Iraq. Interestingly, when he attacked Bush, he did it from the right, ridiculing the president's immigration plan, for example, as an amnesty for illegal aliens.

And then, with one week to go and the polls putting Ford and his opponent, Bob Corker, in a dead heat, the Republican National Committee put out a television ad showing a young white woman in a strapless dress, announcing: "I met Harold at the Playboy party." Her shoulders bare, she beckoned at the end of the ad, "Harold, call me!" Ford lost by a margin so small -- less than 3 percent that any small factor might have made the difference. But the Tennessee campaign is remembered mostly for that ad, which conjured up some of the saddest elements of America's gnarled racial history: The lynching of untold numbers of black men in the South between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II for crimes, often imagined, that ranged from raping white women to insulting them. The baggage is old, but real and still raw. The effectiveness of the ad depended on one's sense of and sensitivity to history. Clearly it was not meant to evoke morning in America.

Still, Ford emerged from the election with his political bona fides intact and even enhanced. Almost immediately, he talked of another bid for the Senate in 2008. Now he has set his sights on the governor's mansion in Nashville, which will be vacated by term-limited Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2010.

Al Sharpton is calling me back during a break from his radio show. Sharpton is what is casually described as a traditional civil-rights leader. He is definitively old school and savvy enough to understand that when "new generation" black leaders are praised for their "credibility," their "viability," or their ability to "transcend race," the political translation is that they are not Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan.

He dismisses the notion that the new politics is all that new. "There have always been black people who worked inside the system, while some worked outside it," he says. "Thurgood Marshall was on the Supreme Court when Martin Luther King was still alive. This ain't generational. Barack Obama and I are the same generation, Deval Patrick and I are the same age." (Sharpton was born in 1954, Patrick in 1956, and Obama in 1961.)

"I think the civil-rights movement has produced leaders who are not civil-rights leaders, but that was the whole point of the civil-rights movement, to give people a chance to live up to their potential," Sharpton says. "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."

Tensions over the blackness of black candidates have simmered for years, between Booker T. Washington's accomodationist self-help movement and W.E.B. DuBois' more aggressive black activism, between Malcolm X's threats of violence and King's devotion to nonviolence. But today there is something new: "In just my lifetime the meaning of leadership for African Americans has changed," says Congressman Davis. "When my mother came along you could teach, but you couldn't teach white children, you could lead, but you couldn't lead white people. This is a different space. Now you could live up to your potential."

The critical question, and it has yet to be answered, is whether living up to one's potential means leaving behind issues that are important to black people. Like the fight for affirmative action, for continued government protection against race-based discrimination in employment, education, housing, and other critical areas. Despite all the measures of progress, African Americans remain a disproportionately large portion of those suffering the ravages on the nation's continued inequality: Three in four white families owned their homes in 2005, while only 46 percent of blacks did; the median income for white households was $50,622 in 2005, while black median household income stood at less than $31,000, a 40 percent disparity that has existed since 1980; and blacks in the United States have an 18.6-percent chance of going to jail at some point in their lives, compared with 3.4 percent for whites.

Nonetheless, the new black politicians seek race-blind, not race-based, solutions. "I can't think of a single issue in American political life where you can still say 'This will exclusively affect blacks,' or 'This will only affect whites,' where you can say what this means for the Black Agenda," says Davis, who admits that in a lot of cases the consequences "fall more acutely on black people."

These new leaders say they leave advocacy for African Americans to civil-rights organizations. Ron Walters, who was the campaign manager on Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, says that's how it should be. "I think a lot of times people, the media especially, confuse civil-right leaders with political leaders," Walters said. "The reason African American communities needed civil-rights organizations was because of the injustice and abrogation of rights that existed in our communities. That is not a job for political leaders, and we still need civil-rights leaders." In this division of labor, civil-rights leaders -- who have always spent a lot of their effort petitioning political leaders for redress -- can now in theory make their case to more highly placed and more sympathetic black leaders.

The emergent strain of American Dream politics from black politicians is attracting a lot of attention at the very moment that some of the civil-rights-era, freedom-fighting types are reaching new heights of political power in the place where historically it has been most significant, the House of Representatives. Last January, Detroit's Conyers, first elected in 1964, became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Charles Rangel chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and Mississippi's Bennie Thompson is the new chairman of the Committee of Homeland Security. And before she died in April, California's Juanita Millender-McDonald was head of the Committee on House Administration.

The old guard and the young Turks are mutually respectful, acknowledging that their experiences and opportunities are different because times have changed. "Could you imagine if John Conyers was a 35-year-old lawyer beginning his political career now?" Davis, 39, asked, suggesting that Conyers' political talent today would have taken him beyond the job of veteran congressman.

For his part, Conyers says he is "very enthusiastic about Obama's campaign, because he represents a new dimension to what we saw with Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton," African Americans who ran for president over the past 40 years. "I think it is very critical that we move along with him." (Conyers does not think the Democrats' best chances lie with Obama, however. "What I hope is going to happen is that we get a Clinton-Obama ticket, which I think gives us the best chance to win.")

But the true prize for African Americans may be Obama's opportunity to try.

On a rainy, humid afternoon deep in the Alabama summer, people were lined up around the corner, waiting to get into the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham. More than 2,000 of them paid $25 each to attend an event where they would be served no food, not even a pretzel.

Davis stood on the stage marveling at the crowd. "You have to be from Alabama to appreciate this," he said to Obama, whom he was about to introduce. "I've never seen a more diverse crowd -- black, white, rich, poor. It was amazing," he told me later. "That is not the norm in Alabama politics. Usually the black political community tends to do its thing, and the white political community does its thing."

There is a lot of Alabama in Alabama politics. "Not 10 minutes away from that ballroom was the 16th Street Baptist Church where those four little girls got killed in 1963," Davis told me. He asked for a show of hands of people who were around in 1963. There was a sprinkling.

"I bet that you could never have imagined that someone like me would be standing on this stage, getting ready to introduce someone …" The crowd erupted. Davis never got to finish the line. "It was astonishing," he recalled later. "To be a black politician born in America after 1960 with the rhetorical skills to communicate a vision to voters, it is possible to have the same career aspirations as white politicians with similar skills," says Davis. "Everything now is in the zone of possibility."