What if someone gave a convention called “Black America Today” and Barack Obama, Harold Ford, Cory Booker, Bill Cosby, and Juan Williams starred as the marquee names? Right now, these are some of the black “It” guys (along with Diddy, of course)—yet they don’t fit the typical idea of “Black America,” do they? In his new book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—And What We Can Do About It, NPR and Fox News commentator Williams plays Boswell for Cosby’s straighten-up-and-fly-right message that the comic has delivered to cheering crowds in cities across the land. Obama, Ford, and Booker are political stars who are touting old-fashioned American self-reliance and ingenuity, with nary a hint of racial resentment. Remember Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech, when he told the audience that people don’t want government to solve all their problems, that they expect to work hard to get ahead? “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, . . . a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America,” he urged. “There’s the United States of America.” Take that, Jesse Jackson!
This may not seem the best time to make the case for the End of the Jackson Era. After all, Harold Ford, not to mention Republicans Michael Steele of Maryland and Ken Blackwell of Ohio, lost their statewide elections. In fact, you might well argue that, if anything, we are seeing a revival of Kabuki race theater, with the actors of yesteryear appearing in a return engagement. As I write, Al Sharpton is going “a-shopping for justice” (and photo ops), calling for demonstrations and the resignation of a police chief after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man on the eve of his wedding. (See “No, the Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell,” page 84.) Jackson himself is doing his part to bring back racial politics as we knew it by seizing on actor Michael Richards’s bizarre racist breakdown at a Los Angeles comedy club to demand that entertainment executives meet with him to discuss the use of the n-word (and, doubtless, the financial needs of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition). As if that weren’t enough déjà vu all over again, John Conyers, the congressional point man on slavery reparations, is about to step into the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee, and Charlie “George-Bush-is-our-Bull-Connor” Rangel, who has been on the Hill since 1971, when he replaced Adam Clayton Powell, is set to helm the Ways and Means Committee. So many veteran African-American congressmen are now in leadership positions that Rangel chuckled recently: “I don’t want to scare the hell out of people, that blacks are now in charge of the committees and so, therefore, watch out.”
Still, if you read the tea leaves carefully, you’d have to conclude that Rangel’s kind of comment—with its pitting of us against them, its air of gloating (if jocular) menace, its assumption of racial homogeneity—is growing as obsolete as its speaker. Though blacks still lag behind whites educationally and economically, and though a predominantly African-American underclass continues to languish in the inner city, there’s a tidal shift away from the black grievance and identity politics of yesterday. No, police brutality, racial profiling, welfare spending, and affirmative action are not going to vanish soon from the nation’s political discourse. And no, blacks are not about to flood into the Republican Party; Obama, after all, has a Senate record that only Americans for Democratic Action could love. But with a surging, confident, and varied black middle class, blacks are talking a more positive American language of self-empowerment and middle-class virtue and marking a significant turning point in America’s ongoing race story.
The familiar narrative of race politics has always evoked the epic vision of the civil rights era: a battle between good and evil, between justice and racism, peopled by heroes like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks on the one side and monsters like Bull Connor and George Wallace on the other, supported by honorable institutions like the NAACP and the black church. For older black leaders—a John Lewis with scars from Selma, or a Jackson, present when Martin Luther King was assassinated—the narrative was no metaphor. Growing up in a segregated world, they found their only route to power was to become ministers and rights activists, and to try from there to get onto school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and, with special luck, Congress. Never mind that in recent decades the heroic epic often degenerated into farce in the antics of a Sharpton or a Cynthia McKinney, or that its reverent symbolism increasingly congealed into the cynical orthodoxy of a Jesse Jackson; the narrative still kept its powerful hold on the nation’s politics and the black imagination.
Up until now, at any rate. For a younger generation of blacks, the symbolic, I-marched-with-Martin politics, not to mention the Jackson-style cronyism that it often degenerated into, doesn’t cut it—and not just because this generation is too young to have felt the billy clubs at Selma. Instead of rights activists and ministers, many of these newcomers are lawyers or businessmen. Even though a few grew up poor, they’ve all spent their formative years swimming in the mainstream, including major universities, corporations, and law firms, and they are now solidly middle class. “These politicians are comfortable in a post–civil rights world,” explains Vanderbilt political science professor Carol Swain, author of Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress. “They’ve had white friends; they’ve had white girlfriends. They may still be frustrated by racism at times, but they’re functioning fine in the world they’re living in.”
The future promises to deepen the muddle: almost half of those who are multiracial are under 18. Although intermarriage between blacks and whites, while higher than it was, remains rare, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had dated someone of a different race, and 95 percent approved of interracial dating. No wonder so many malls and city streets look like a Benetton ad. Young girls are throwing away their California-blond Barbies for multiracial Bratz dolls.
When W. E. B. Du Bois pronounced that the problem of the future would be the problem of the color line, this is probably not what he had in mind.
Even considering only those whose blackness is not in question, there are fissures that complicate the civil rights narrative. Afro-Caribbeans have a substantially higher median income than American-born blacks, for example. And 8 percent of today’s black population consists of recent arrivals from Africa; astoundingly, more African immigrants have arrived voluntarily since 1990 than the number who once came as slaves, according to the New York Times. These immigrants, too, have far higher employment and education levels than native-born blacks. In the old narrative, white racism is keeping black folks from succeeding. But while native-born blacks do indeed have a substantially lower median income than whites, what do we make of African immigrants, who on average are staying in school longer and earning more than whites?
None of this means that the country should ignore continuing black-white inequality. Black married couples have fewer assets than whites and, with poorer credit histories, have higher mortgage and car-loan rates. Black unemployment is twice that of whites. Forty-four percent of the prison population is African-American. And the one fact that, above all others, limits the future of racial equality: 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers.
But without question, our narrative about black America—and our politics—is changing. When we ask, “Will the Real Black Person please stand up?,” will it be a Chicago punk sporting a do-rag and bling and his single mother working the night shift in the Oak Gardens nursing home? Or will it be the branch manager of an Orlando bank, with a mortgage, a Weber gas grill on the patio, and a Toyota Corolla in the garage? When we have a possible black presidential candidate who was president of the Harvard Law Review and looks like a star of the country’s most popular television show, when young black professionals are buying condos in Dallas, Phoenix, and Tampa, then, as Congressman Artur Davis says, “the labels don’t work anymore.”
And that’s very good news for everyone—except maybe Jesse Jackson.