Race is the last thing that Barack Obama should talk about in his presidential campaign, Emanuel Cleaver II says. As the first black mayor of Kansas City in the 1990s, “it would have been suicidal for me to start some racial justice program,” the Missouri Democrat said last week. And since his election to Congress in 2004, Cleaver has held to the same simple rule: “What you’re trying to do is not get people to think about race.”
But that’s not how another African-American member of Congress, Artur Davis of Birmingham, Ala., approaches the question. He argues that any black candidate running in a majority-white environment has to create an appeal that goes beyond racial identity. And that means being ready to talk about race, calmly and without dividing people, because the subject will always come up. “When it happens, that candidate has to be prepared to talk in an open, conciliatory way that tries to find common ground,” said Davis. “It does affect our politics, and there’s no point in pretending it doesn’t.”
The two have differing preferences in the presidential race: Cleaver has endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the Democratic nomination, while Davis is backing Obama. But the more striking difference may be their ages and the life experiences of their generations. At 63, Cleaver was born just before the baby boom started and was raised under segregation. Davis is 40 – a member of Generation X who grew up in poverty, was almost six months old when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and never knew life before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Their diverging views on the place of race in political campaigns captures a generational shift magnifying the importance of Obama’s appeal to younger voters. As much as the Illinois senator has tried to build a campaign based on transcending the old racial divides, virtually no one thinks the age of “post-racial politics” has arrived. But one of the keys to getting there – or, at least, getting to a point where race plays a minimal role in how people vote – is the different attitudes younger generations have toward race.
Obama’s appeal to younger voters has very strong and specific racial resonance, lawmakers and analysts of racial and generational politics say. And as younger people rise to political power and vote in greater numbers, the ground he staked out in his speech on race last month after the disclosure of incendiary remarks by Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., will become accepted political consensus. “The change will really come with generational change. That’s when the country really will reach a point where racial politics are not as significant as they are now,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that conducts research focused on African-Americans.
Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, a leader of the civil rights movement who recently switched his allegiance from Clinton to Obama, sees the same dynamic at work. “Each generation builds on the progress that the previous generation made,” he said. “Each generation is more involved than the last with people of different races and backgrounds.”
For now, Obama’s association with his former pastor is likely to continue to be an issue throughout the campaign – and a reminder that post-racial politics is still something of a myth.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that Obama’s speech on race contained the political damage from the disclosure of Wright’s statements, and Obama continues to lead Clinton in national polls. But it also suggested that independents – who would loom large in a general election campaign against presumed GOP nominee John McCain – remain put off by Wright’s remarks. Similarly, a majority of Clinton’s supporters disapproved of Wright’s comments – as did three out of four Republicans. Moreover, in a stark illustration of the racial divide, the survey reported a majority of white voters were offended by the sermons, while most black voters weren’t.
Still, some Obama allies take comfort in evidence that younger voters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are more used to diversity and less concerned about the kinds of racial grievances Obama mentioned in his speech. They believe he has found an effective way to tap into their view that identity politics – among African-Americans, working-class whites, Latinos and people of other backgrounds – matters less than it used to and should be seen in context.
“I think the speech was really about generations” rather than race, said Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez of Chicago, an Obama supporter. “I deal with it better as a parent and a teacher, and my daughter deals with it better than I do, and her son’s going to deal with it even better. Barack deals with it better. Each generation deals with it better, and I think that’s part of the healing process.”
Beyond Identity Politics
Gutierrez has seen the change firsthand. In 1996, his fourth year in office, he had a run-in with a Capitol security guard who didn’t believe he was a House member – then taunted him, he recalls, with statements like, “If you people would go back to where you came from, we wouldn’t have all these problems.”
A Generation Gap on Racial Politics
At the time, Gutierrez was showing the Capitol to his daughter, Omaira, and a niece. He was worried that Omaira, then a teenager, would come away from the encounter bitter and traumatized. Instead, “she was telling me, ‘Relax, Dad, I get it,’ ” Gutierrez said. “She just said, ‘Dad, what – do you think you’re not going to deal with bigotry because you’re a big congressman?’ ”
Omaira’s reaction that day could easily sum up the approach Obama took to racial divisions in his speech: Acknowledge the problems, accept them and move on to other things. He hasn’t been able to move on completely from Wright, in part because both the press and the Clinton campaign have kept the issue percolating. But Obama seems determined to stay on his message.
“Of course the Republicans will bring it back,” Obama said of the Wright episode in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last week. But he stuck to his broad campaign theme of creating greater civic unity across old divisions. “We’re at our best when we join together. We’re at our best when we’re unified. We’re at our worst when we’re divided and when our politics is based along tribal and ethnic lines instead of based on who we are as Americans.”
Those sorts of comments have helped to secure Obama’s appeal with younger voters because they’re the opposite of the approach the baby boom generation took to race, which was to celebrate racial identity and elevate its importance in the process, according to Neil Howe, who with William Strauss has written several books about generational politics.
Obama’s message has particularly connected with “millennials,” demographers’ term for people born between 1982 and 2000, because “what really resonates with millennials is this theme of transcending differences,” said Howe. “They see that what they’re being taught by the older generations carries a lot of freight that’s kind of old hat.”
Kathleen Barr, deputy political director at Rock the Vote, which promotes more civic involvement by young people, noted that recent surveys have shown evidence that “the racial divisions that used to exist aren’t quite as important to younger people as they are to older adults.” For example, a survey last year by New American Media found that Californians ages 16 to 22 commonly reported having friends across racial and ethnic lines and were far more likely to define their identity by personal tastes, such as music or fashion, than by racial or ethnic identity. Only 1 percent saw racism as the most pressing issue facing their generation.
In addition, a national Zogby/Lear Center poll last year found that people ages 18 through 29 were far more accepting of affirmative action than any other age group. Nearly half said affirmative action “levels the playing field,” while two-thirds of adults in every other age group said it “rewards some groups at the expense of others.”
Even with such changes, most analysts don’t believe race will disappear as a factor in politics entirely. “Saying ‘What can we do to put it behind us?’ is kind of like saying ‘What can we do to put economics behind us?’ ” said civil rights historian Taylor Branch. “It is part of politics. Politics is about how we divide ourselves into teams and compete.”
Still, Bositis believes the lowering average age of the voting population already helps to explain which states have moved closer to post-racial politics than others. In Pennsylvania, where voters tend to be older and more likely to be vested in old racial politics, Obama is having trouble breaking through, Bositis said – in contrast to a state such as Colorado, which has lately become a beacon for young transplants, and is therefore more inclined to back African-American candidates.
It’s a shift that even seasoned black political leaders like Cleaver see in the once-divisive issue of race. “Unfortunately, you and I may not be around when it becomes a non-issue. But I am certain that that day is coming,” he said. “Obama’s grandchildren will think nothing of it.”