Michael Niebauer of the DC Examiner called the other day with a question that had been wandering aimlessly around in my head for some time: what did Barack Obama and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty have in common?
I suggested that he expand the question to include Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ.
They all share two big things. First, they are of the first generation of modern black leaders who have gotten where they were by passing exams rather than crossing police lines and, second, they are of the first generation of black leaders to have been both educated and vetted by the white establishment.
Or, to put it another way, they are the first generation of modern black leaders who are not agents of change, but primarily beneficiaries of change.
There are, to be sure, some major differences between them, such as the amount of dues paid by Cory Booker, son of civil rights activists, who makes Barack Obama’s community organizing gig seem like that of a dilettante. True, Bookerwon a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxfordand graduated from Yale Law School but for eight years, Booker lived in a public housing project and organized its tenants. In 2006, he moved on – to a rental on Newark’s south side, which has been described as a “drug and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots.” He went on to take over the city from the notorious Sharpe James, one of the last of the fulltime old style corrupt big town mayors.
That’s a bit different from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who has been under the wing of the white elite throughout much of his life, including going to Milton Academy, majoring in English and American literature and joining the exclusive Fly Club at Harvard, followed by Harvard Law School (like his pal Obama, who even lifted some of his rhetoric). After a tour with the NAACPand a private law firm, Patrick ended up as an Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton administration.
DC mayor Fenty is the only one who didn’t go to the Ivy League. Rather he attended a mini-mart version, Oberlin, and then went to Howard Law school. Fenty is the son of a small business couple who run a popular and respected sportswear and shoe store.
All four are young and have had a remarkably short drive to heaven. Three benefited directly from the decay of older black leadership but they also happened along at a time when even cynical white political operatives and godfathers of the white business community were out looking for black brands to put on their operations.
In one of the telling moments of his mayoral campaign, then councilmember Fenty – who had previously sided regularly with tenants – supported a rent-control bill favored by the Apartment and Office Building Association. As local journalist James Jones put it, “At some point, the word went out to the big landlord community that Fenty was OK, despite his tenant-advocate past.” One apartment management outfit managed to round up $24,000 for his campaign.
Obama had the right sort of friends as well, evidenced by the fact that you don’t make it from state senator to major presidential candidate in less than four years without some significant non-black participation in the discovery.
The politics of the Black Ivies reflects their mentors, contributors and passers of the good word. We are now familiar with Obama’s sharp post-primary shift to the right, but it didn’t really surprise me because I had already lived through it with Fenty, whom I supported – with perhaps the most rapid subsequent regret I have ever experienced with a politician.
I had fallen, I admit, for Fenty’s Obama-like talk of hope and change and I figured the son of small business folk would be a welcome change in town where politicians traditionally serve the corporate Board of Trade first and the people as an after thought.
It was soon apparent that the change was designed to make someone else happy, namely those on the editorial board of the conservative Washington Post and the Federal City Council, an unelected shadow government that then publisher Phil Graham had established years ago. High on the council’s agenda was a mayoral takeover in the public school system, including the hiring of a stunningly dictatorial superintendent, the evisceration of what remained of an elected board of education, and the closing (and possible sale for development) of numerous schools.
In Fenty’s first year we also were greeted by a police chief who had been involved in the torture of demonstrators and was trained by the Israelis on how to handle such rabble; the fining of anti-war demonstrators for just putting up protest notices; the ending of a taxicab zone system which had given the city the largest per capita cab service in the country, not to mention thousands of jobs; a plan (later dropped) to destroy all official e-mails after six months; the denial of the right of car owners to make personal appearances on parking tickets; the tripling of the number of staffers earning over $175k a year; the firing of highly experienced librarians; and the illegal removal of city officials based on age discrimination.
More recently, the NAACP police review committee, on which I sit, found itself battling this hip, thirty something black mayor because he had established police checkpoints for entering one neighborhood cruelly reminiscent of the practices of South African apartheid. Fenty even personally fired a social worker, one of whose clients had died, on the grounds the child had not been visited. Which sounds reasonable until you learn that the social worker’s client list had grown from four to 50 in recent weeks because of Fenty’s previous grandstanding -the firing of workers for not adequately handling a case. The national standard for social workers is 12 clients, but after the first controversial case the numbers soared.
In sum, it sounds not unlike what you might expect if some older, white Republican had taken over the place. Worse, it has been carried out with remarkable and disturbing arrogance. One of Fenty’s former deputy chiefs of staff told reporter Mark Segraves, “I think a lot of people are apprehensive and anxious — you know, have a lot of anxiety about how their voice is being heard and incorporated in the changes that are happening. We do live in a democracy and it’s not a dictatorship between the election and the next election.”. . .
“I think as I listen to the folks in the neighborhoods and I talk to people in the Wilson Building and other government buildings, I think there is a growing frustration that there’s one single voice making all the decisions in the city. I don’t think that’s what people had in mind when they elected Mayor Fenty.
“I think there were a lot of folks who were expecting this populist young mayor to work very closely with public to make decisions, very close with his former colleagues on the Council and closely with his senior staff, some of whom like myself who had served with him on the campaign. Unfortunately over time I saw less and less interest in hearing new ideas and different ideas.”
When a local black radio host made similar criticisms of Fenty and asked for my response, I said that I didn’t think Fenty saw himself as king so much as he perceived himself as CEO of Washington and that we were just his employees, not citizens. This narcissistic aura of entitlement and superiority has been noted of other Black Ivies, including Obama. Even Democrats on the Hill are starting to complain. Its roots are unclear but one senses that everyone – from parents to grade school teachers to employers to media – have blessed these politicians with a pride in their excellence and in their magnificence as ground breakers. They have been happy to accept the notion without further inquiry.
But beyond this has been a disappearance of successful non-business styles of leadership. It’s not just George Bush who says “I’m the decider” these days; it has become a dominant philosophy of running things. Thus, when Nelson Mandela points out that you can’t lead cattle from the front, it sounds quaint and archaic and even if, as with Obama, you have been trained in Alinsky style community organizing, it takes not much of a twist to turn those skills towards one personal purpose: getting yourself where you want to be.
Thus, if some find me unduly skeptical about Obama, it is in part because I have already seen his shadow in Adrian Fenty. And with Obama, as with Fenty, there is a sense of hubris not to mention the difficulties, as they say in elementary school, in learning to play well with others.
Thus it didn’t surprise me to learn that Patrick early in his administration, spent almost $11,000 on drapery for his suite, moved up from a Crown Victoria to a Cadillac and hired a $75,000 personal aide for his wife. Nor that conservative aspects of Cory Booker’s approach to some issues or the tale of him ordering his escort to pull over a car that had just jettisoned some trash out of a window. Said Booker later, “I told them that what they did was an act of violence.”
Recently, there has been much talk about the generational clash between the new black leadership and the Jesse Jacksons of an earlier time. The underlying assumption on the part of many commentators is that the things that concerned the Jacksons and Sharpton have become irrelevant and that we in a new era. And since the young have been offered not Martin Luther King or Fannie Lou Hammer, but Jackson and Sharpton, it’s not surprising they’re seeking something different.
Unanswered in this argument, however, is what we are getting out of the shift. Yes, Booker, Fenty, Patrick and Obama are younger than Jackson, but aside from that what are we gaining? The record is mixed. Patrick has been more progressive on a number of issues than either Obama or Fenty. On the other hand his popularity has plummeted Booker is perhaps the most interesting and conflicted of the lot; Fenty the most boring. Obama the most successful.
But if there is one thing we can learn from the Black Ivies, it is that it’s not the color of the politicians leading us that matters, but where they’re going. It’s not your roots but what you do with them.
For example, put the Black Ivies up against earlier urban ethnic politicians, such as the Irish, and what immediately jumps out is not their ethnicity but their lack of political empathy for those who share it. Try, for example, to imagine James Michael Curley lecturing the poor Irish on how to raise their kids or a Tammany Hall politics based on dismantling public schools, increasing police powers and taking away a taxi system that favors lower class strivers. As late as Marion Barry, blacks made such notable progress in DC that it became fondly known as Chocolate City. Under Fenty no one would even think of it.
Part of the pride some express for the new leaders is that it is a sign that we are moving beyond race. Perhaps, but race was always a convenient stereotype for something that we’re not moving beyond nor even wishing to discuss: class. Even in the old South, segregation was a way for the white elite to keep poor whites and blacks from discovering what they had in common.
The rise of leaders like Fenty and Obama allow us to continue not to exclude class issues in our politics. The poor, as John Edwards discovered, can’t make it far even on the white liberal agenda.Having a black or woman president provides comfort without the need to change things much.
This doesn’t make the Black Ivies any worse than any other politicians; it just makes them decidedly typical in important ways. Which is why we have a black Democratic candidate for president to the right of the US Conference of Mayors on healthcare and whose major economic planks include telling young blacks to work harder. And a black mayor who doesn’t want people entering their own neighborhood without police approval.
In the end, it may not be a national conversation about race we need so much as one about all the things we use talk of race to cover up.