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The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obamaby Gwen Ifill
Synopses & Reviews
I learned how to cover race riots by telephone. They didn't pay me enough at my first newspaper job to venture onto the grounds of South Boston High School when bricks were being thrown. Instead, I would telephone the headmaster and ask him to relay to me the number of broken chairs in the cafeteria each day. A white colleague dispatched to the scene would fill in the details for me.
I've spent 30 years in journalism since then chronicling stories like that – places where truth and consequences collide, rub up against each other, and shift history's course. None of that prepared me for 2008 and the astonishing rise of Barack Obama.
It is true that he accomplished what no black man had before, but it went farther than that. Simply as an exercise in efficient politics, Obama '08 rewrote the textbook. His accomplishment was historic and one that transformed how race and politics intersect in our society. Obama is the leading edge of this change, but his success is merely the ripple in a pond that grows deeper every day.
When people do something that they've never done before, I think that makes it easier to do it a second time, David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist, told me just days after Obama won. So when people vote for an African American candidate, I think itmakes it easier for the next African American candidate.
The next African American candidates – and a fair share of those already in office, subscribe to a formula driven as much by demographics as destiny. When population shifts – brought about by fair housing laws, affirmative action and landmark school desegregation rulings – political power is challenged as well. It happened in Boston, New York, Chicago and every other big city reshaped by an influx of European immigration. It is happening again now in Miami and Los Angeles, in suburban Virginia and in rural North Carolina, where the political calculus is being reshaped by Latino immigrants. With African Americans, freighted with the legacy of slavery and the pushback from whites who refuse to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors, the shift has been more scattered and sporadic – yet no less profound.
Boston was awash in the sort racial drama that foreshadows dramatic change when I began my journalism career at the Boston Herald American in 1977.
While I was attending Simmons College, the Federal courts demanded that the city's very political school committee fix the city's racially unbalanced education system.
The solution, imposed by U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity in 1974, seemed pretty straightforward. Send white children to black neighborhoods and black children to white neighborhoods. It came to be known as forced busing.
The idea was to impose balance where it no longer existed. The optimistic reasoning was that the resources — teachers, textbooks, shared experience — would follow. But history now shows us busing – moving 20,000 students to and fro in search of quality education was, in fact, a far more radical notion than originally envisioned. It struck at the heart of neighborhood and racial identity in cities all over the nation, most memorably so in Irish South Boston and black Roxbury.
White residents of insular neighborhoods railed – sometimes violently – against the incursion into their neighborhood schools. Black residents
In a survey of American politics, a veteran journalist assesses the impact of Barack Obama's history-making presidential campaign, especially on the political power of African Americans, and profiles rising African-American politicians, including Newark mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. 60,000 first printing.
GWEN IFILL is moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Before coming to PBS, she was chief congressional and political correspondent for NBC News, and had been a reporter for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and Boston Herald American. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Table of Contents
1. BREAKING THROUGH
2 . THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE
3 . BARACK OBAMA
4. THE RACE-GENDER CLASH
5 . ARTUR DAVIS
6 . LEGACY POLITICS
7 . CORY BOOKER
8. THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY
9. DEVAL PATRICK
10. THE NEXT WAVE
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