Earlier this month, nonprofit executive John Bryant addressed a convention of black public officials, telling them African-Americans had to become political free agents and make politicians work for their vote. Bryant, himself black, said that message 10 years ago would never fly. Today, he says, it gets roaring applause.
Ten years ago, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies began noticing that young African-Americans were taking a different political path from parents who had come of age during the protests of the 1960s. Five years ago, the center reported that most older blacks still identified strongly with the Democratic Party but fully a third of younger black adults called themselves independents. Still, the face of black leadership was that of fiery liberal Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Carol Moseley Braun.
The baton, finally, is passing to a new generation. It may well be a new day–a time when emerging black leaders declare their intellectual independence. As much as they revere the civil rights activists of the past, these leaders believe that changing times demand different answers. Welcome to the politics of the post-civil rights era.
The most obvious signals are coming from the Republican side. In a year when one poll showed President Bush’s approval rating among blacks at a microscopic 2 percent, one of the few bright spots is the effort of GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman to attract more blacks to the party. "Give us a chance," Mehlman argues, "we’ll give you a choice."
Swing voters. Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is the front-runner in the Republican gubernatorial primary there. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is locked in a close race for the U.S. Senate. A recent Democratic National Committee poll said that a majority of blacks in Maryland were willing to consider Steele. In what the pollster called "the emerging black swing" vote, a plurality of those polled, 44 percent, were persuadable when given Steele’s message.
Black Republicans may be collecting most of the headlines, but perhaps even more significant changes are occurring among independent black Democrats. For a generation after the 1960s, black Democrats spoke the language and pursued the politics of the civil rights movement. Barack Obama broke the mold with his appeal for a politics that transcends race. As he worked with Republicans to fashion a bipartisan immigration bill recently–a compromise opposed by his party elders–one could sense his independent streak. It makes Democratic strategists long for him to run for the White House.
If Obama is the trendsetter at age 44, there are other black Democrats just a step behind–and who bear watching, too. One is Cory Booker, 36, profiled in this issue; another is Harold Ford Jr., 35, a Tennessee representative who could win the Senate race there this fall; a third is Artur Davis, 38, running for re-election to the House and eyeing a later race for the Senate or the statehouse in Alabama.
All three went to elite universities, are building alliances with both Hispanic and Anglo voters, and–important–are breaking ranks with Democratic orthodoxy. Ford supports prayer in public schools and has voted to cut capital-gains taxes. Booker is a strong advocate of charter schools. Davis, whose district includes battlegrounds of the civil rights era, warns against seeing politics from a race-based view.
It is not that these leaders reject the civil rights movement. Far from it. Recalling recent conversations with Ford and Davis, Booker said, "All of us feel a profound sense of reverence and gratitude for our parents and grandparents. . . . We know of their battles and sacrifices and that we have never been asked to sit in the back of the bus or face a lynching for just looking at a white woman in the South."
But, he continued, the nation is no longer crystallized in a black-white lens. As blacks move in greater numbers to suburbs and Hispanics continue to increase their numbers, broad-based coalitions become a political necessity. In Booker’s own Newark, N.J., Hispanics have become 40 percent of the population, and he undertook intensive Spanish training last year.
With global forces also pressing down, Booker believes new tactics are needed–solutions as inclusive as those of civil rights days, but better fashioned for new realities. "We are the hip-hop generation," he says, "and that means we are all about taking the music of our fathers and figuring out new mixes."