The rise of Barack Obama has spawned a wave of stories heralding “a new generation” of black politicians who successfully appeal to white voters. There are two big problems with this story line.
The most apparent is that the politicians so identified, including Obama, do not belong to a new generation or even the same generation—a word that, on journalists’ keyboards, seems to have lost its age-related meaning.
The New York Times’s front-pager on Tuesday, “Quiet Political Shifts as More Blacks Are Elected,” is the latest example. Of the six black politicians cited as examples of “a new generation of black elected officials who are wooing white voters and winning local elections in predominantly white districts across the country,” five are Baby Boomers and one was born in 1944, a year before that generation began. Black Boomers in political office are decidedly not new.
A much-discussed article in the August 10 issue of the Times Magazine, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”, was even more confused. Wedged into the same generation with Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, both Boomers, were three younger officeholders who belong to the next generation: Newark Mayor Corey Booker, born in 1969; Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, born in 1967; and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, born in 1965.
Now, there can be some fuzziness about when certain generations begin and end, but the Baby Boom is not one of them, defined as the twenty-year-period from the end of World War II in 1945 through 1964. Obama was born in 1961, Patrick in 1956.
The Times is hardly the only publication to birth a generation to fit this facile, preconceived construct. LexisNexis and Google searches for a “new generation” of black politicians turn up numerous examples from, for example, The Washington Post, Time, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Associated Press.
This stock interpretation, besides being wrong, neglects the kind of probing this significant political trend merits.
The big question: What has made more white voters willing to vote for black candidates? What types of experiences, in desegregated schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, or elsewhere, have shaped these voters’ attitudes toward the candidates? In what parts of the country has racially polarized voting broken down, and where may it still prevail? What may account for those regional differences?
Instead of lumping the new black candidates into a generation free-floating above time, why aren’t more journalists asking what—rather than age—binds them together? What kinds of experiences have shaped their ability to successfully appeal to white voters? Are the candidates offering similar political messages, or campaigning in similar styles? What might they have in common with black pioneers who won in predominantly white electorates, most notably former senators Ed Brooke of Massachusetts and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois?
Pursuing both lines of questioning, why white voter attitudes have changed and what truly makes these emergent black politicians different, would surely produce more thoughtful coverage of black politics than newspaper readers have been getting for four long years. The midwife of a supposedly new generation of black politicians was the uplifting speech Obama gave to the Democratic Convention in 2004, when he was still an Illinois state senator but the prohibitive favorite to win a U.S. Senate seat that November.
Three days after that speech in Boston, the Richmond 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 the senate 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.