By Farooq A. Kperogi
Two weeks ago, I pointed out that there is an emergent crop of Black American leaders who is actuated by a new kind of politics, the kind of politics that has propelled Barack Obama to the epicenter of America’s politics. It’s a politics that is anchored on a calculated choice to rise superior to the politics of racial grudge that has been the enduring trademark of Civil-Rights-era Black American leaders.
I identified these nascent corps of Black American politicians as consisting of Deval Patrick, the current governor of Massachusetts in northeast United States; Harold Ford Jr. a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Tennessee; Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark in the state of New Jersey; and Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC.
There are certainly many more as yet scarcely known but nonetheless potentially influential Black American politicians who fit the label of post-Civil-Rights-era leaders. However, it is Obama, Patrick, Booker and Fenty that the mainstream American media is celebrating now. And if you know anything about the power of the media to make and/or mar people, better watch out for these guys.
It seems safe to say, at least for the moment, that if another “Obama” will arise from Black America, it would most likely be from among these remarkably cosmopolitan black politicians whose political tentacles extend beyond their racial comfort zones. Apart from their appeal to diverse racial groups, they are also all lawyers who, like Obama, began their public-service careers in community organizing rather than in national civil rights organizations. Most of them also attended Ivy League schools.
Interestingly, they are all Obama’s close friends and confidants. (Obama, in fact, has been caught on at least two occasions plagiarizing lines from the astonishingly declamatory Gov. Deval Patrick, a fact Hillary Clinton wanted to cash in on to end Obama’s political career but for the pro-Obama bias in the mainstream American media.)
So far, apart from Obama, only Patrick has won an office that required large numbers of white voters to support him. (The state of Massachusetts is a little over 90 percent white and only about six percent black).
Patrick, the 51-year-old, Harvard-educated descendant of enslaved West Africans, was elected the first ever black governor of the politically consequential state of Massachusetts on November 7, 2006 and formally assumed office on January 4, 2007. (Massachusetts, home to the city of Boston which calls itself the “hub of the Universe,” is the nucleus of northeastern United States and in many ways the cultural and political pacesetter of the whole nation. It’s equivalent, in many respects, to Kaduna in northern Nigeria or, if you like, Ibadan and Enugu in western and eastern Nigeria).
Gov. Patrick was born in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago (where Obama and his family currently live) in the Midwestern state of Illinois to a dysfunctional family—an absent father who left his wife and children to play music in New York and who had children outside wedlock, and a struggling mother who was barely educated.
When Patrick announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts in 2005, nobody gave him a chance. This was understandable. He was confronted by seemingly unconquerable obstacles. First, there was no record of a black governor in Massachusetts, and blacks are a mere six percent of the population of the state. Second, like Obama, he was faced with the daunting challenge to wrest the nomination of his party from such time-tested, well-heeled, and thoroughly entrenched (white) Massachusetts Democratic politicians as Tom Reilly and Chris Gabrielli.
But Patrick’s superior organizational acumen, his appeal to young white voters who had never participated in politics before, his “post-racial” persona, his oratory (which, by the way, far dwarfs Obama’s) and, of course, increased levels of white tolerance in the country coalesced to give him twice as many pledged delegates as his closest rival, Tom Reilly.
In the general election, he faced the reigning deputy governor (Americans call them lieutenant governor), Kerry Healey, a Republican, who ran because the governor at the time, Mitt Romney, didn’t seek a second term because he wanted to run for president on the platform the Republican Party. In other words, Patrick was up against what in Nigeria we call “the power of incumbency.”
Patrick received an overwhelming 56 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial race that had three other formidable contestants. He finished 20 percentage points ahead of the then incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, making him the second elected African American state governor in United States history, the first being Douglas Wilder who was elected Virginia State governor in 1989. Patrick is also the third African American to serve as a United States state governor, the first being P. B. S. Pinchback, former Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana who ascended to the governorship of Louisiana in 1872 consequent upon the impeachment and removal of his predecessor, Henry Clay Warmoth.
Similarly, he is one of two current black governors, along with David Paterson of New York, the former lieutenant governor of New York who became governor this year after his boss resigned from office in the wake of damming revelations that he patronized prostitutes while he maintained a façade of moral toughness in public. For the first time in U.S. history two black governors serve concurrently.
It should be mentioned, though, that both Wilder (who is still alive) and Pinchback (who is, of course, dead) are/were so light-skinned they could easily pass for white people—at least to African eyes. They have pale skin, long noses and straight hairs, and would certainly be called oyinbo/bature if they were to visit Nigeria or muzungu if they were to be in East Africa. But Gov. Patrick can easily get lost and not be isolated in any village or city in Nigeria—or anywhere in black Africa. I actually consider him the first elected black governor of the United State, if you define blackness from an African perspective.
(I know this is a problematic thing to say, given the complexity of racial identification in the United States).
Well, what of Booker, Fenty and Ford? Their story is not nearly as dramatic as Patrick’s. The electoral successes of Booker and Fenty are not in anyway earth-shattering. After all, Newark, the main city in the state of New Jersey in northeast United States, is over 50 percent black, and Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, is over 65 percent black. It’s just that the public personas and personal politics of these young Black politicians have been interpreted by the dominant media as conforming to the “postracialness” of Obama and Gov. Patrick.
In the case of Ford, he came very close to being elected to the U.S. Senate. But he lost very narrowly to his (white) Republican rival thanks, in part, to suggestive ads by his opponent that featured a white actress—a throwback to the days when white males were in mortal fear of losing their women to black males.
In the stories of these young Black politicians, one thing stands out in bold relief: Civil-Rights- era politics has had its day. It engendered Affirmative Action policies (equivalent to Nigeria’s Federal Character or Quota policies) and many other policies on positive discrimination, which laid the ground work for the “Obamas” to emerge on the American national scene. But this kind of politics is now obsolete and self-limiting.
If there is one lesson to be learned from Obama’s meteoric rise to national political stardom, it is precisely the futility of the politics of racial resentment by Black American politicians.