Three days after that speech in Boston, the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch cited “some political analysts” who said Obama “represents a new generation of black politicians.” The one analyst who was named — Hastings Wyman, identified as the editor of the Southern Political Report — said that the new group “knows how to cross the racial lines” and is “comfortable in an integrated world.”
Wyman did pinpoint what appears to be a common attribute of the candidates discussed in the article and many subsequent articles in other publications. But a quick check of birthdates should have given the Times-Dispatch pause about accepting Wyman’s conclusion that the interracial comfort zone the candidates share has been shaped by age.
Besides Obama, also mentioned in that article were Herman Cain, another boomer and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, and two members of the next generation: Harold Ford Jr., then a Democratic congressman eyeing a senate seat in Tennessee, and Dylan Glenn, who was headed into a runoff for the Republican nomination in a mostly white congressional district in Georgia. (Ford and Glenn lost.)
In the intervening four years, various political analysts have echoed Wyman’s generational interpretation, and journalists have swallowed their quotes whole. There is a lesson for journalists about the risks of abandoning their skepticism when interviewing experts, even the best of them, and granting their words unquestioned authority.
Patrick, frequently said to belong to this new generation, has echoed the analysts. A front-page story in The Washington Post on July 28, 2007, quoted him as saying: “There’s a huge generational moment in the country where people are looking for the next generation to take its rightful role … and we represent the next generation to take some responsibility.”
Journalists, of course, should know better than to let politicians write their own press notices. John F. Kennedy used a similar slogan to launch his political career in a Massachusetts congressional race in 1946.
Some articles have contrasted Obama, Patrick and others with black officeholders who are members of what has been called the civil rights generation. This interpretation has some merit. Like World War II, the civil rights movement had such impact on the nation that it may define a generation, though not as neatly. Obama and Patrick, for example, lived through part of that movement, but both were too young to have participated in any significant way.
Even here, though, some age-related confusion has crept in. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom have sought the Democratic nomination for president, have been frequently cited as politicians who represent the civil rights generation. Jackson was born in 1941, before the baby boom. But Sharpton was born in 1954.
So he belongs to one generation, and Patrick, two years younger, to another?
The Times Magazine article juxtaposed Obama against other members of the Congressional Black Caucus from the civil rights era, such as House Majority Whip James Clyburn from South Carolina, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and Charles Rangel, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman from New York. But their generation no longer is representative of caucus membership.
A generational shift in the Black Caucus started more than a decade ago and has been completed. The creation of additional black-majority districts before the 1992 election increased caucus membership by about 50 percent and brought an influx of boomers. In the last Congress, they comprised 60 percent of its 42 members and outnumbered the civil rights-era members almost two to one.
Overall, the coverage of Obama and other black politicians with broad appeal has focused on their track records as candidates. What else they may have in common has received superficial treatment.
That many were educated at predominantly white colleges is sometimes mentioned, but not enough journalistic energy has been devoted to finding out what formative experiences on campus prepared them to skillfully navigate between the races. Nor has there been much comparison of their campaign styles and messages. The Times Magazine article points to their “extolling middle-class values in urban neighborhoods,” though it’s a stretch to suggest that members of the civil rights generation, who fought to open the doors of those elite white colleges, have not done likewise.
Even more lacking has been an examination of what has changed about white voters to make them more accepting of black candidates. Early in this election cycle, many stories reported poll findings that a majority of whites are willing to consider voting for a black candidate for president. This attitudinal shift has been taken for granted as a natural, predictable evolution unworthy of further investigation.
What is underneath that change in white voter attitudes? That’s a large story that could tell much about how the country has moved closer to embracing its creed that anyone can grow up to be president.
Perhaps the place to find that analysis will be in a new book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” to be released on the day of Obama’s inaugural. Its author, Gwen Ifill, host of “Washington Week in Review” and a former Banner staffer, is a veteran journalist who has covered black politics on a national level for two decades.
Black leaders in Congress don’t expect to have an especially close relationship with President-elect Barack Obama. That attitude reflects in part Obama’s nontraditional path to the presidency: He didn’t pass through the crucible of civil rights and form alliances there. More »
Both Deval Patrick and Barack Obama are Harvard-educated African Americans with ties to the South Side of Chicago — Patrick grew up there, while Obama moved there at the age of 22 to take a job as a community organizer. Patrick ran his gubernatorial campaign on a message of hope and change — the same keystones of Obama’s presidential campaign. Both men have crafted campaigns they call movements that belong to the voters. More »
“There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president who was widely respected in the party,” referring to Harry S. Truman. “And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do. It is time for a new generation of leadership,’” he continued. “So it is with Barack Obama.” More »