Debunking the “New Generation” of Black Pols

A simplistic narrative that misses some real stories

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.

One black officeholder said to belong to this new generation has echoed the analysts. A front-page story in The Washington Post on July 28, 2007, quoted Deval Patrick 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. Patrick governs the same state where John F. Kennedy used a similar slogan to launch his political career in a 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. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who 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 Senator Obama against other members of the Congressional Black Caucus from the civil rights era, such as Democratic Whip James Clyburn from South Carolina, Representative 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. By now, they comprise 60 percent of its forty-two members and outnumber 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 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 it will be written after the election.

Kenneth J. Cooper , a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He has reported on national politics for The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder, and supervised political coverage as National Editor of The Boston Globe.