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Black Leadership In The Age Of Obama: A Look Back


What America looked like back in 2008 in terms of race politics was the focus of PBS NewsHour co-anchor and managing editor Gwen Ifill's book "Breakthrough." Back then, there was an expectation that Barack Obama's candidacy would herald a new generation of black politicians, leaders raised after the civil rights movement who could appeal to voters regardless of race. With President Obama set to take the stage at the Democratic National Convention, we sat down with Gwen Ifill to find out what happened to that generation of politicians that was supposed to arrive in Obama's wake.

GWEN IFILL: I called it the breakthrough generation because they were all in their 40s and early 50s. They all had stories of growing up in homes in which they saw their parents be active in the movement, and then they decided they would get to the movement a different way. And the idea was that they still had a responsibility to do something, but the responsibility didn't mean just marching. It meant actually taking power, often from other black leaders which caused some internal friction.

CORNISH: Those leaders who had come up through the civil rights movement in many cases.

IFILL: If you're Al Sharpton and you're Jesse Jackson, it was a different time, and it was a different place. If you're Deval Patrick or if you're Barack Obama, you came to it by challenging often black people. Barack Obama had to run against Bobby Rush in Chicago and get beat before he had a chance to breakthrough in the way that he did on the national stage.

CORNISH: You identified in this story Deval Patrick, as you mentioned, former Massachusetts governor, former Newark mayor and now Senator Cory Booker. But some people look around and they say, what happened? You know, why wasn't there a whole new generation of Barack Obamas, right? Why is there a Marco Rubio and not a Barack Obama?

IFILL: I think with a black president, I think it took our eyes off of people who were coming up behind him. Also, there's a cautionary tale in being the first. A lot of people looked at what happened and said, I don't know if I want to go through what he went through. But I don't know. I think that when Barack Obama's no longer there, he's no longer sucking up so much air, we're going to see more and more people rise up. But you're right. I can't identify off the top of my head someone running for Senate, for mayor or governor who is a brand new name yet.

CORNISH: Now, there's a certain kind of pragmatism to a politician like Barack Obama. Is there a place for that kind of person in the atmosphere of today?

IFILL: The atmosphere we're in today is a really important part of the answer to that question, Audie. I think we're having a far more - interestingly enough, a far more vivid discussion about race now in this election than we did when we had a black man running. When Barack Obama ran, he ran in part by convincing white people he wasn't a threat.

Now whenever we have a discussion about race in this campaign, it's always about threat. It's always about someone versus someone. It's always about arguments that are happening in the streets, not in the political world. So I do think it's a completely different environment for someone African-American to rise in and not for everything to be a fight.

CORNISH: This is also a period where you have a generation of black activists who are not exactly enamored of politics - right? When you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, you had activist DeRay Mckesson attempt to run for Baltimore mayor. But other than that, we're not quite seeing them embrace this. What are you seeing in this generation?

IFILL: I don't think DeRay Mckesson was serious because the thing about politics is it's hard work, and it's about policy in the end. And if you run just for a platform, you forget at some point you still need to raise money. You still need to get a constituency. You still need to have an organization.

And if there's one thing true about Black Lives Matter, they're not organized. And that's why they have a hard time mounting an organized argument that - it's kind of like the Bernie Sanders people. They walked out of the convention one night and then came back in to watch Bill Clinton speak. It wasn't as organized as it would seem, just looking at pictures of them. Frankly, a lot of young people look at politics and go, ah, there are other ways to achieve what I think is important.

CORNISH: So how do you look back on this period? And I'm going to use the air quotes of post-racial politics.

IFILL: It never was. The interesting thing about the idea of post-racial - it may have convinced some people to vote for Barack Obama, but he never thought we were post-racial. It became abundantly clear after he became president and people began questioning everything about him, including where he was born and what his instincts were in his wife and lots of racist comments that we never even heard about directed at the black first family that we were never going to be post-racial. Now, can we be post-racist? I still think that's something we can aspire to and that people try to.

CORNISH: Gwen Ifill is co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour. She's also author of the book "The Breakthrough: Politics And Race In The Age Of Obama." Thanks so much.

IFILL: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.