Friday, January 18, 2008

A Generational Divide

While the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have thankfully moved beyond the topic of race (as much as they're willing to admit), the battle lines have been clearly drawn. What's interesting is that many of the traditional leaders and most powerful voices of the black community are not on the side you would think.

As race alone should not garner support for a particular candidate, it should not come as a surprise that black leaders have yet to unanimously endorse Barack Obama, the first viable black candidate in U.S. presidential politics. But, what is surprising is the growing number of black leaders who have not only endorsed Hillary Clinton, but who have become her attack dogs in a concerted attempt to discredit Obama within the black community. The Washington Post elaborates;

The most amazing thing about the 2008 presidential race is not that a black man is a bona fide contender, but the lukewarm response he has received from the luminaries whose sacrifices made this run possible. With the notable exception of Joseph Lowry... Obama has been running without much support from many of the most recognizable black figures in the political landscape.
The "old guard's apparent aversion to Obama" doesn't seem to come from any personal animosities or skepticism of Obama's many talents, but from a generation divide and political opportunism. They are perhaps driven by a reluctance to crown a new standard-bearer of the cause and a refusal to accept the growing irrelevance that would follow.
That's because, positioned as he is between the black boomers and the hip-hop generation, Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership -- or at least the illusion of their influence.
Andrew Young was the first. Young, a former Congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and US Ambassador to the United Nations, mocked Obama by claiming Bill Clinton was "every bit as black." But that wasn't enough. He added that Clinton had probably even been with more black women - "as if racial identity could be transmitted like an STD." Young went on to announce that Obama was too young and should wait until 2016 - a curious statement considering that Young was apprenticed to Martin Luther King Jr., who was 26 when he launched the Montgomery bus boycotts that eventually toppled segregation. So much for the "fierce urgency of now".

And then Al Sharpton. Last spring, Al Sharpton cautioned Obama "not to take the black vote for granted." Presumably he meant that the senator had not won over the supposed gatekeepers of the black electorate. Asked why he had not endorsed Obama, Sharpton replied that he would "not be cajoled or intimidated by any candidate." More recently Sharpton claimed on his radio show that the candidates' recent attention to issues of civil rights was a product of pressure from him.

And then Jesse Jackson, whose criticism of Obama over "Jena Six" drew a public rebuke from his son.

And then Bob Johnson, founder of BET, who, while campaigning for Hillary Clinton, cast Obama as "a guy that says I want to be a reasonable, likeable Sidney Poitier" and then made a thinly disguised reference to Obama's teenage drug use. Soon after, he claimed to be misunderstood. Then he owned up and apologized to Obama. Nevertheless, the damage had been done and the question remains - why did he think defaming Obama was necessary to make the point that Hillary Clinton deserves praise for her work in the black community?

And then Charlie Rangel, Congressman for life in his Harlem district and Chairman of the powerful House ways and Means Committee, who claimed that "Obama was "absolutely stupid" in his part of the exchange over the relative influence of Rev. Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson in passing civil rights legislation."

The Post elaborates: "Taken as a conglomerate, Jackson, Young, Sharpton and Georgia Rep. John Lewis represent a sort of civil rights old boy network" that has "parlayed its dated activist credentials into cash and jobs."

To the extent that the term "leader" is applicable, these four men likely represent the interests of Democratic Party insiders more than those of the black community. Both Young and Lewis have endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; Sharpton and Jackson have acted ambivalent, alternately mouthing niceties about Obama and criticizing his stances on black issues. It may be that, because they doubt that he can actually win, the civil rights leaders are holding Obama at arm's length in an attempt to build their houses on what looks to be the firmer ground. And there are certainly patronage benefits should Clinton win.

As polls show increasing black support for Obama, Jackson, Sharpton and Young begin to look like a once-wealthy family that has lost its fortune but has to keep spending to maintain appearances. Obama's tepid early showing among blacks in the polls had more to do with name recognition and concerns about his viability as a candidate than with Jackson or Sharpton withholding their endorsement.

Ignoring Sharpton or Jackson is not the same thing as taking the black vote for granted. It is a reasonable calculation that neither of them can deliver many votes and certainly not enough to offset the number of white votes that their approval could lose Obama. Jackson and Sharpton might be holding out for a better deal in exchange for their support, but with Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock among Obama's list of supporters, they have little to bargain with.

If Obama makes a strong showing in the South Carolina primary - the first with a substantial number of black voters - it will become apparent that the black boy network has begun bouncing checks. The irony is that for generations of black "firsts," the prerequisite for entering an institution was proving that you were just like the establishment that ran it. Obama has been vastly successful by doing just the opposite: masterfully positioning himself as an outsider. In the process, he's opened the door even wider for black outsiders. Too bad his predecessors refuse to help push him the rest of the way inside.

1 comment:

Mike Belgrove said...

Over on Highbrid Nation another one of our writers did a post on the connection between Obama and Sharpton or the lack there of. Honestly if I was Obama I'd stay far away from Sharpton, or as we like to call him, "Captain African-American", also. Obama must appear to be representing the country as a whole not just one demographic.