Monday, August 11, 2008

New Black Politics?

"The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn't start this year. It is happening gradually and quietly, for at least a decade...."

Matt Bai, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" New York Times Magazine, August 10, 2008.

We already know a little bit about what an Obama presidency would look like -- more inclusive at many levels and not just in government. Just look at new-found diversity of the cable pundits. Check out the diversity of of major lobbying firms and advocacy associations.

And all politics is local. Bai is somewhat myopic by focusing on a simple notion of generations and bypassing black mayors except for a couple of newbies like Michael Nutter. In Economic Development in American Cities: The Pursuit of An Equity Agenda Michael Bennett and I showcase case studies of four black mayors who broke new ground -- Norman Rice of Seattle, Otis Johnson of Savannah, William Johnson of Rochester, and Harold Washington of Chicago. Even in this group of progressives we have lots of diversity. Norm Rice, for example, was mayor of a major city with a relatively small black population; he fashioned a social equity agenda and downtown building effort. William Johnson articulated a regional perspective on civil rights that got beyond his Rochester and spoke to metro area.

Harold Washington governed a big city with large white and Hispanic populations. He had to break the mold. His key staff, largely black, represented policy wonks, young technocrats, budget conservatives, bootstrap entrepreneurs, grassroots activists, and machine old-hands. And if you read the history, he had his own tussles with Jesse Jackson.

So, the story is more complex, yesterday and today. Look at Ron Dellums, a long-time progressive, now mayor of multicultural Oakland. Anthony Williams,of DC, was a technocrat who put the fiscal house in order.

Black mayors have made peace with local growth elites, kept alive patronage and developed ethnic-based machines, played technocrat to fix failing cities and institutions, and built multicultural coalitions and articulated social equity agendas. Many have governed diverse cities, constituencies, challenges, and opportunities.

An Obama presidency would build upon and perhaps accelerate the best of these legacies, not simply jumpstart a new politics. At the same time, I don't think we can fully anticipate the full impacts of an Obama presidency on politics and society as a whole.

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