Raising expectations

Looking to Obama's presidency, Maryland black leaders see both opportunity and challenge

December 16, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Barack Obama's presidential victory last month is an important historical moment for racial progress in America. The significance has largely been couched in terms of the election of a mixed-race candidate by a multiracial coalition in a suddenly post-racial America.

This is a convenient, incomplete truth that ignores the meaning of Mr. Obama's win for national black politics, including organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as the African-American community generally.

To amplify this partially muted part of the national conversation, I decided to check in with three Maryland politicians I knew would have something to say about it: Seventh District Rep. Elijah Cummings, Fourth District Rep. Donna Edwards, and Kweisi Mfume.

Ms. Edwards spent the first part of Election Night with one set of constituents at the Rockville Hilton in Montgomery County, watching as the networks called the election for Mr. Obama. She then drove to Prince George's County to hear President-elect Obama give his Grant Park victory speech with another group of constituents at Le Fountain Bleu in New Carrollton.

"The audience in Montgomery County was largely white, though diverse, and in Prince George's it was largely black but also diverse," said Ms. Edwards. "And the feeling in both rooms was very similar. It was like a big, tearful family reunion.

"The euphoria that we're seeing around the country is the same in the black community," Ms. Edwards said. "I don't know that there are different expectations from members of the Congressional Black Caucus or from my African-American constituents. But there is a sense that so many things of concern to the black community that were off the table are back on the table again."

She specifically cited urban policy and "the agenda of working people" as areas that would be "elevated" in the Obama White House.

"There's a sense there's an audience in the White House," she told me. "It's not that we'll necessarily be able to do everything. But with Obama, there's a sense of fairness, opportunity and commitment to working people."

National black political institutions also stand to make gains.

"In terms of the CBC, they are now faced with the welcome prospect of a White House that's less of an adversary and more of a partner," said Mr. Mfume, who served five terms in Congress before becoming president of the Baltimore-based NAACP.

Mr. Mfume, who spent most of 2008 giving surrogate speeches on behalf of the Obama campaign, mainly in the Midwest, says the NAACP also should be able to capitalize on Mr. Obama's ascendancy.

"The NAACP will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year," he noted. "Obama's election gives [the NAACP] a great opportunity to expand its outreach and ability to gather support from a wider selection of Americans."

Mr. Cummings was very involved at high levels in the Obama campaign. In the days before Maryland's primary, he hosted a major rally in downtown Baltimore for the Illinois senator.

"I think Barack's election is a turning point in this sense: You will have more African-Americans running in predominantly white districts, like for governor or legislative seats in a 90 percent white district," Mr. Cummings predicts. "I think you're going to see a lot more African-Americans holding office."

Though he says black officials and candidates will be more visible, Mr. Cummings also cautioned that the new attention will increase pressure on black elites.

"Obama also sets a higher standard," he said. "He is absolutely brilliant, and he comes to the political arena totally prepared. Although he will make black candidates more visible, it puts more responsibility on them."

Mr. Cummings said Mr. Obama's election will also increase public accountability in the black community.

"When I go around and I say to black neighborhoods, 'Hey, you can't expect government to do everything for you,' I can do that but a white politician can't," he said. "And Barack can say that too."

So there you have it: greater expectations from African-Americans and national black elites - but also greater expectations of them.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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