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BOOK REVIEW

Ifill's 'Breakthrough' examines the new black leadership

By Chuck Leddy
January 19, 2009
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Completed just after the November election of Barack Obama, Gwen Ifill's book about the recent success of African-American politicians reads like a series of extended magazine articles. Her analysis is a mile wide and just a few inches deep, and her chapters seem connected by a barely discernible thread. Ifill, host of "Washington Week," covers an array of electoral success stories, from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to Newark's Mayor Cory Booker to Obama himself, but she seldom gets beyond conventional wisdom.

While Ifill, and the politicians she writes about, wisely rejects the idea that race has become a neutral issue in American politics, she thinks that recently successful African-Americans (Oprah Winfrey, Obama, etc.) have changed their approach from that of an earlier generation: "One of the things all these well-known names have in common is the ability to short-circuit white guilt. None of these popular figures seems to be pointing the finger of blame."

Ifill describes the "Obama generation" of African-American leaders as "almost all middle-class, college-educated, and comfortable in multiracial situations. They are not the 1960s stereotype of a civil rights leader." Unsurprisingly, some of the surviving generation of civil rights leaders have criticized this new style politics: "those who marched back then," Ifill notes, "often turn out to be the biggest critics of those who are poised to take over now." Ifill explores the criticisms leveled against this new generation for not being "black enough." The very fact that Obama has become so popular among white voters for his calm demeanor and precise diction, Ifill says, "seemed to render him an object of suspicion" in the black community.

In one of Ifill's few provocative moments, she turns the "not black enough" issue on its head, pointing us to the complicated racial calculus that most African-American politicians must confront: "The only thing more debilitating than the 'black enough' question is the 'too black' question. The latter is seldom asked out loud, and it is never asked by black people. It is, however, the question that can cost mainstream black candidates an election." Although Ifill raises this fascinating issue, she does not answer it. The underlying question of whether white voters have changed their attitudes about African-American candidates gets short shrift, yet this is a crucial issue for the "breakthrough politicians."

Ifill offers us a series of portraits of up-and-coming African-American elected officials, such as Booker, and Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois and Artur Davis of Alabama. What these leaders have in common is strong crossover appeal among white voters and an often tenuous relationship with the older generation of black leaders. The traditional dynamic of a black leadership focused solely on, and fully beholden to, the black community who elected them, is gone, Ifill argues. The future is in "coalition building," which expands the political base of these candidates: "Politicians such as Barack Obama, Deval Patrick, Artur Davis, and Cory Booker are staking their futures on such broadened horizons."

Much of Ifill's book is devoted to short biographical sketches of little-known African-American politicians who are building a political base beyond just the black community, including San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, South Carolina state Representative Bakari Sellers, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. Ifill also has a chapter on young black leaders whose parents were also black leaders (with Jackson Jr. being the most obvious). While these chapters and biographical sketches are interesting, perhaps a more in-depth examination of just a couple of them, especially their challenges in developing cross-over appeal among white voters, may have been more illuminating. While Ifill's analysis is impressively broad, it suffers from a disappointing lack of depth.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE BREAKTHROUGH: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama By Gwen Ifill

Doubleday, 288 pp., $24.95

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