Black Politics Paradigm Paradox

Salim Muwakkil

Political pundits were ready to announce that black politics had reached an important milestone after Cory A. Booker won the mayor’s race in Newark, N.J., on May 9. The 37-year-old Booker defeated his chief rival by a margin of nearly 3 to 1. His victory is a generational change (the man he’s replacing is 70), but it also marked a change in the traditional line of political ascent and ideological allegiance.

The winning campaigns of Dellums and Booker confound attempts to chart black politics as a linear progression

Booker is a product of suburban privilege: He earned degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School with a Rhodes scholarship in between. A former star athlete with a tall, athletic frame, the charismatic Booker has a comforting, cross-cultural manner. Without a political sponsor, he moved into Newark in 1996 and organized an active community group fighting for better city services. Two years later, he won a seat on the city council, serving from 1998 to 2002

He ran for mayor in 2002, losing to incumbent mayor Sharpe James, who had served since 1986. An Oscar-nominated documentary, Street Fight, chronicled that abrasive campaign. In late March, James announced he would not run for a sixth term, allowing Booker’s well-financed campaign to roll over an under-funded substitute, Deputy Mayor Ronald L. Rice.

Booker amassed more than $5 million for his second run and his fundraising prowess is not hard to understand. Admiring articles about him have appeared in a number of major publications (including a Time magazine piece with a headline asking if Booker was The Savior of Newark?”). Bankers and real estate moguls in Manhattan hosted fundraisers for him, celebrities have offered their support and he has drawn plaudits from a bipartisan chorus of politicians, pundits and activists.

His politics are a mixture of urban progressivism and New Democrat-style neoliberalism. He supports school vouchers for public schools and private sector approaches to some public problems, but he also stresses the need for affordable housing, universal medical care and for providing increased services to disadvantaged youth.

Many pundits list him with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) as post-civil rights black politicians that bring heterodox (even heretical) ideas to government – a new paradigm, as they say. 

But wait just a minute:

In June, former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums was elected mayor of Oakland, Calif. Dellums is a 70-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement who served 27 years in Congress. After a laborious count of absentee and provisional ballots that lasted nearly two weeks, he captured more than 50 percent of the Oakland electorate and won the seat outright over his closest rival, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuenta.

An iconic progressive who represented the liberal East Bay during a contentious era, Dellums is defiantly old paradigm. He pushed hard to end the war in Vietnam and was one of the strongest congressional voices against South African apartheid. 

Rather than focusing on specific solutions to Oakland’s problems, Dellums’ campaign stressed his government experiences, especially an ability to work with diverse groups. For example, although he vigorously opposed American militarism during his congressional tenure, he wound up as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. 

Dellums forcefully articulated his goal for Oakland to become a model city with scant poverty and universal health care. He is hostile to educational vouchers and remains suspicious of the forces who have rushed to Booker’s support. The septuagenarian mayor noted his biggest change will be to increase the public’s role in running the city. 

These contrasting political phenomena confound attempts to chart black politics as a linear progression. 

Booker’s fresh face and energetic optimism bring new energy to Newark, a city ever on the verge of renaissance. I started my journalism career with the Newark bureau of the Associated Press, and I maintain an abiding interest in that bellwether city. Kenneth Gibson, elected in 1970 as the city’s first black mayor, gained national attention with the quip, Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.” 

Gibson was right and wrong. The economic disinvestment and white flight” that fueled Newark’s steady decline set a pattern widely replicated in much of urban America, including Oakland. But as other cities have been revitalized, New Jersey’s largest continues to languish. More than 25 percent of Newark’s 280,000 residents live below the poverty line amidst high rates of unemployment, crime and myriad other social dysfunctions. 

But Booker’s quest for new approaches linked him with some disreputable forces; his affection for education vouchers, for example, allied him with the sinister Bradley Foundation, one of the main financial founts of neoconservatism and of hereditary writers like The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Critics will be waiting for other signs of heresy. Supporters will trumpet Booker’s willingness to look for ideas outside the box” of liberal orthodoxy. 

Dellums, on the other hand, will probably work the liberal orthodoxy for all it’s worth, seeking government involvement in the unfinished quest for social justice. As a veteran progressive, Dellums understands that market-oriented solutions often clash with that quest. 

Booker appears to believe the two approaches can be reconciled. Time will tell whether Booker is sincere in that belief and, if so, whether he’s right.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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