The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

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9780385525015: The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama
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In The Breakthrough, veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential victory and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.

Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama (all interviewed for this book), and also covers numerous up-and-coming figures from across the nation. Drawing on exclusive interviews with power brokers such as President Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, his son Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict, the race/ gender clash, and the "black enough" conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.

The Breakthrough is a remarkable look at contemporary politics and an essential foundation for understanding the future of American democracy in the age of Obama.

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About the Author:

GWEN IFILL is moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Before coming to PBS, she was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, and had been a reporter for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and Boston Herald American. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

I learned how to cover race riots by telephone. They didn't pay me enough at my first newspaper job to venture onto the grounds of South Boston High School when bricks were being thrown. Instead, I would telephone the headmaster and ask him to relay to me the number of broken chairs in the cafeteria each day. A white colleague dispatched to the scene would fill in the details for me.

I've spent 30 years in journalism since then chronicling stories like that – places where truth and consequences collide, rub up against each other, and shift history's course. None of that prepared me for 2008 and the astonishing rise of Barack Obama.

It is true that he accomplished what no black man had before, but it went farther than that. Simply as an exercise in efficient politics, Obama '08 rewrote the textbook. His accomplishment was historic and one that transformed how race and politics intersect in our society. Obama is the leading edge of this change, but his success is merely the ripple in a pond that grows deeper every day.

"When people do something that they've never done before, I think that makes it easier to do it a second time," David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist, told me just days after Obama won. "So when people vote for an African American candidate, I think itmakes it easier for the next African American candidate."

The next African American candidates – and a fair share of those already in office, subscribe to a formula driven as much by demographics as destiny. When population shifts – brought about by fair housing laws, affirmative action and landmark school desegregation rulings – political power is challenged as well. It happened in Boston, New York, Chicago and every other big city reshaped by an influx of European immigration. It is happening again now in Miami and Los Angeles, in suburban Virginia and in rural North Carolina, where the political calculus is being reshaped by Latino immigrants. With African Americans, freighted with the legacy of slavery and the pushback from whites who refuse to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors, the shift has been more scattered and sporadic – yet no less profound.

Boston was awash in the sort racial drama that foreshadows dramatic change when I began my journalism career at the Boston Herald American in 1977.

While I was attending Simmons College, the Federal courts demanded that the city's very political school committee fix the city's racially unbalanced education system.

The solution, imposed by U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity in 1974, seemed pretty straightforward. Send white children to black neighborhoods and black children to white neighborhoods. It came to be known as forced busing.

The idea was to impose balance where it no longer existed. The optimistic reasoning was that the resources -- teachers, textbooks, shared experience -- would follow. But history now shows us busing – moving 20,000 students to and fro in search of quality education was, in fact, a far more radical notion than originally envisioned. It struck at the heart of neighborhood and racial identity in cities all over the nation, most memorably so in Irish South Boston and black Roxbury.

White residents of insular neighborhoods railed – sometimes violently – against the incursion into their neighborhood schools. Black residents in Roxbury railed right back.

As I walked to my college classes in Boston's Fenway neighborhood that fall, I saw the result with my own eyes -- Boston's finest in riot gear stepping in to prevent clashes at English High School. It was a scene that played out again and again all over the city, all over the country.

"The white kids don't like black kids and black kids don't like white kids," one white student said after one of the melees I covered by phone. "All of it is prejudice. All I know is that no one's getting any education."

"It's a perfect example that forced desegregation and forced busing does not work," Elvira Pixie Palladino, an anti-busing member of the school committee told me at the time.

White students fled the city schools during those years, so many that the majority-white city's education system became majority black within a decade. By 2000, only a quarter of the city's children were white. Drastically fewer – under 14 percent – were enrolled in the city's elementary schools.

It took some years, and a more sophisticated understanding of how race and poverty intersect, for me to begin to understand that what I saw in Boston was about more than just black and white kids not liking each other. It was the beginning of a power shift that was defined by, but not limited to, race.

I moved to Baltimore in 1981, where the tipping point I had witnessed taking shape in Boston was a little farther along. When I arrived, the city's leaders were still mostly white, but 56 percent of the city's residents were already nonwhite, a number that grew to 64 percent by 2000.

On the surface, Baltimore's political vibe was less charged than Boston's, but the power shifts were no less significant. The city's paternalistic mayor, William Donald Schaefer, had revived downtown with a national aquarium and a Disney-like harbor development that brought tourists in droves. Twin baseball and football stadiums were poised to sprout on downtown's southern edge. Gleaming condominiums and hotels replaced what had been rundown waterfront docks. Schaefer was hailed in national magazines as an urban savior. Howard Cosell told a Monday Night Football audience that Schaefer was "the genius mayor."

But not far from the glittering downtown development most convention visitors saw, the picture was more complicated. Crime was climbing. The schools were sliding. And change was in the offing.

Schaefer, an unmarried curmudgeon used to getting his own way, was suspicious of change. And he was doubly suspicious of any call for change that seemed rooted in racial claim. That meant that he would also be suspicious of me, a black woman whose job it was to ask him questions he did not like. As he growled and snapped at me – and, honestly, at most other reporters too – I came to realize what I was witnessing: the friction that is a necessary byproduct of sandpaper change.

In 1983, Billy Murphy, a black judge and scion of a prominent local family decided to use the sandpaper. Schaefer was still immensely popular, but he was also aware that new minority majorities had recently swept black mayors into office for the first time in cities like Atlanta, and that the barrier was about to fall that year in Philadelphia as well.

In the end, Murphy turned out to be a pretty inadequate Democratic primary candidate, disorganized and unfocused. Even though then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Martin Luther King 3rd and comedian and activist Dick Gregory came to town to campaign for him, Schaefer still managed to snare fully half of the black vote, in a majority black city.

Even in defeat though, Murphy's challenge was enough to open some eyes to the possibility that the "mayor for life," as Schaefer had been dubbed, might be displaced. Perhaps it was time for a candidate who looked like most of the people who lived in the city. Schaefer hated this line of reasoning, openly detested Murphy and refused to speak his name aloud. Still, he saw the handwriting on the wall.

Four years later, Baltimore did get its black mayor when, after 16 years in charge, Schaefer was elected governor and selected a successor to fill his unexpired term. Clarence "Du" Burns, the affable City Council president who rose to that position from humble beginnings as a locker room attendant, was only too happy to claim a job he may never have been able to win outright. "I got standing ovations at churches," Burns marveled years later. "I hadn't done anything for them, but I was the first black mayor, y'understand?"

Burns, who learned the ways of city politics behind every closed door at City Hall, ended up spending 17 years there, but only 11 months as mayor. The first time he ran for the job outright, Burns was defeated by a younger, politically unannointed Yale and Harvard-educated attorney, a black man with the unlikely name of Kurt Schmoke. Schmoke, had abandoned a prestigious post in the Carter White House to return home to Baltimore. "I thought why did he give up working in the White House?" said his former White House colleague Christopher Edley Jr. "What's going on? And he said, I'm going to indict a few bad guys, make some connections in the corporate world and run for office."

That is exactly what Schmoke did, first winning election as state's attorney before making the run for City Hall. Even though he was up against the well-oiled Schaefer machine, Schmoke defeated Burns by 5,000 votes by capturing the imagination of Baltimore voters – black and white – in a way neither Murphy nor Burns, with their old-school ties and backroom ways, could not.

"I was kind of the beneficiary in a way of a change sparked by the latter end of civil rights movement," said Schmoke, who is now the dean of the Howard University School of Law, which produced Thurgood Marshall, L. Douglas Wilder and Vernon Jordan. "The voting rights act, which opened up so many opportunities throughout the country, started to hit its stride by 1980, and people built on that."

That trend was also in evidence about 40 minutes down the interstate highway in Prince George's County, Maryland. By 1984, I had taken my unintentional road trip through sandpaper politics to this Washington suburb, where --- between 1980 and 1990 – the African American population spurted from 37 to 50 percent. During that same period, nearly 77,000 whites moved elsewhere – a loss of nearly 20 percent of the county's white population.

The county's power structure was in the midst of a corresponding shift from mostly white to mostly black when I was covering it for the Washington Post. As occurred with S...

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