I have to agree with Zora that a title can be misleading. When I heard that the Times piece was called “The End of Black Politics,” I dismissed it outright. Not very open-minded, I admit.
The title evoked two books that rub me the wrong way (no Johnny Gill): Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness. The former is an incredibly popular piece of international relations political theory about how the fall of Soviet Communism marked the end of large-scale ideological global challenges to Western capitalist democracy; the latter is an occasionally amusing polemic about the death of the Civil Rights era notion of blackness.
I pegged the Times article as another tired argument about how Obama’s success proves that race (that’s code for “blackness”) is no longer relevant in American society, and in American politics more specifically. The article isn’t that, for the most part-the author doesn’t make the ideological argument that the end of racism obviates the need for black politics; he instead makes the practical argument that Civil Rights-era politics are no longer viable on a national stage in light of the successes of a new breed of “post-racial” black politicians.
I agree with most of the points my colleagues made, but I want to focus on something else in the Times’ article: the role the author’s black Ivy (and near Ivy) graduate fetish plays in his depiction of the new post-racial black political over-class. Consider author Matt Bai’s examples: Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law), Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (Harvard, Harvard Law), Newark Mayor Cory Booker (Stanford, Oxford), Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (Penn), Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Harvard, Harvard Law), NAACP President Benjamin Jealous (Columbia, Oxford).
To the right, these Ivy-League-educated negroes are simultaneously typical and atypical. They’re typical in the sense that they’re nothing special; in the conservative mind, black Ivy grads are black people of average ability (well, average in comparison to black people, below average in comparison to whites) who merely had the benefit of affirmative action. Black Ivy grads are atypical, according to conservatives, in that their lives don’t represent the stereotypical black struggle. For this reason, these “elite” black folks have no grounds on which to ally themselves with the black underclass (recall the common conservative judgment that if a black person has a nice home and a high salary, she cannot complain about discrimination). Conservatives often resent liberal Ivy negroes’ infiltration into what was once a “pure” system of white moneyed elitism; however, conservatives love the idea of black Ivy grads because their existence proves that racism is dead.
To the left, Ivy-educated negroes are the new black. It’s not at all surprising that white liberals’ have starry-eyed crushes on these elite negroes. Most white folks are extremely uncomfortable with our society’s racial history, and positing a new kind of black political actor-one who doesn’t remind white people of slavery and Jim Crow-is a way to alleviate some of that discomfort. Bai goes out of his way to note that all of the aforementioned new post-racial politicians grew up with physical and/or cultural distance from average black folks. He makes sure to mention that Jealous and Booker were Rhodes Scholars (lest anyone think these two were unqualified diversity admissions). Bai is effectively marking this new batch of post-racial politicians as “different from the others,” and not just ideologically.
Think about the fact that Detroit Mayor (and soon-to-be convicted felon) Kwame Kilpatrick is noticeably absent from the new-negro-political-elite list. The fact that he’s a coonish crook might have a good deal to do with it, but the author would likely agree that Kilpatrick doesn’t count because he doesn’t have broad appeal (code for “acceptance from white people”). Kilpatrick lacks several qualities-honesty, decency, shame, competence, to name a few; one thing he doesn’t lack, though, is blackness. His unmistakable blackness-his Steve Harvey zoot suits, his “black” speech patterns, his BET-Uncut-style stripper parties mark him as “traditionally black,” thus, he doesn’t fit the profile. Plus, he went to an HBCU (FAMU), not an Ivy.
Also, compare Kilpatrick’s photo with those of the new breed:
Notice anything about their hue?
I realize that light-skinned privilege is nothing new (Chauncey, you El Debarge-colored bastard, I’m looking at you!), but the light, Ivy-educated, post-racial, “universal appeal” associations don’t sit well with me, regardless of whether it comes from white folks or from bougie, Talented Tenth touting, paper bag test-giving black folks.