Obama emerges as face of modern black politics

Shift: With the Rev. Jesse Jackson's role fading, the Democratic party is hungry for a new figure with broad voter appeal.

Election 2004

August 01, 2004|By Jonathan Tilove | Jonathan Tilove,NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON - In coming years, last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston may be seen as a signal moment in the changing of the guard of the nation's black political leadership.

It was the last act of the Rev. Al Sharpton's failed bid to grab the mantle long held by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the debut star turn of Barack Obama, the state senator from Chicago who is the odds-on favorite to become only the third black person in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction - and someone already being talked about for a future national ticket.

"I think this is really the end of an era of race and politics," said Angela Dillard, a history professor at New York University whose specialty is race and politics. "Something's shifting and changing and people like Sharpton can't change with it, and something new and different is being created and it is about people like Obama."

The old model of the black protest leader making demands no longer makes sense in an age tapped out and tired of race, Dillard said. But Obama can argue for policies virtually indistinguishable from Sharpton's in cooler, nonracial terms, while still affirming a message of racial identity and uplift implicit in his very being.

"I think he is talking about race when he's not," Dillard said. "Something about the way he pitches things is perfect for this moment."

"There's not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," Obama declared in delivering the convention's keynote address Tuesday night as enthralled delegates began making mental calculations about which year it would be that this fresh face would be their party's candidate for president.

For 40 years the Democratic Party has had to struggle to maintain their tight identity with black America, their most loyal constituency, without driving away white voters.

It is a dilemma personified by Sharpton, whose long resume of controversy makes him hugely unpopular with whites and easy fodder for the Republicans.

"He's such a polarizing figure," said Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist at George Mason University. Sharpton was given eight minutes to speak Wednesday night, and Mayer, the author of Running on Race, said every one of those minutes would cost Democrats white votes. As it turned out, Sharpton cast aside his approved text, stretched his eight-minute allotment to 20, and won wild approval from delegates hungry for some barn-burning rhetoric, only marred by his reversed reference to "Obama Barack."

"He campaigned all year for that moment," said E. Henry Twiggs, a black Kerry delegate from Springfield, Mass. "They wouldn't stop applauding him."

Still, reaction to the sight of the Democrats cheering Sharpton might be more problematic for the party beyond the faithful gathered in Boston.

By contrast, said Mayer, "Obama is a godsend."

Sharpton and Obama could not be more different in style and biography. Obama, the son of a white mother and Kenyan father he barely knew, was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Sharpton, who counts James Brown the closest thing to a father figure, was an ordained preacher while still a child. Sharpton practices the politics of controversy and polarization. Obama listens, reasons and calms.

In the context of the modern Democratic Party and black politics, both men emerge from the receding shadow of Jesse Jackson, who in two remarkable candidacies for the presidency in 1984 and 1988 established himself as the preeminent black political figure in America.

But if he is no longer playing a commanding role, it is not at all clear that the role still exists, and plain that if it does, black voters were not prepared to hand the portfolio to Sharpton.

"I don't think black America chose him to lead," said Mayer. "What we are seeing here is the maturing of the black vote."

In 1988, Jackson won 13 primaries and caucuses and placed second in 33. This year Sharpton won nowhere, accumulating 27 delegates, enough to fill two elevators at the Park Plaza Hotel, where they came to huddle with their candidate, a rare encounter in a campaign that was often little more than a string of Sharpton TV appearances.

"I don't believe [the Sharpton campaign] had that much of an impact on what's going on here," said Gerald Rowe, a Sharpton delegate from Detroit, where he is the political director of his United Auto Workers local.

Rowe signed on with Sharpton because he liked the attention he drew to issues of importance to the inner city. "He's a good speaker, a good presenter," Rowe said.

But he does not see Sharpton as truly a national figure. "He's another individual," Rowe said. "I don't think we need a new Jesse Jackson."

For Ronald Walters, an authority on black politics at the University of Maryland who advised Jackson in both presidential campaigns, Jackson was vexed by the assumption that he was not running as a "real" candidate. In Jackson's mind, Walters said, he was always running to win.

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