Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

A look at the much-anticipated book on black political leaders in the Obama generation.

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Part of the reason this happened is the temperament of the candi­date himself. Obama was convinced that focusing the conversation on race in and of itself was a losing argument for a crossover black politi­cian. “I’m sympathetic to efforts to have a racial conversation in this country,” he told the National Association of Black Journalists at their summer 2007 convention. “But I find that generally there’s a lot of breast-beating and hand-wringing and then not much follow-through. The kind of conversation I’m interested in having about race is very concrete. Do we have a criminal justice system that is color-blind? If we do not, how do we fix it? . . .  

“My belief is that African Americans, like other racial minorities in this country, are much more interested in deeds than words,” he continued. “And that’s the kind of leadership that I want to show as president of the United States.” 

Obama campaigned in much the same way as he talked to us that day. On one occasion in South Carolina, a black woman stepped for­ward to tell him that her elderly father was not convinced a black man could win. “If I came to you and I had polka dots,” he responded, “but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pock­ets, and help you pay for college and help keep America safe, you’d say, ‘OK. You know, I wish you didn’t have polka dots, but I’m still voting for him.’”18 

“I would always get the question, ‘What is Barack Obama’s agenda for black America?’” Corey Ealons, who directed campaign outreach to African American media outlets, told me. “I would respond by say­ing, ‘It’s the same as Barack Obama’s agenda for all America.’”  

Obama’s star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention arose out of the efforts of a trio of black Democrats—Brazile, Minyon Moore, and Alexis Herman—to lobby for black speakers in prime speaking spots. They called their plan the “Barbara Jordan Project,” an homage to the Texas congresswoman who delivered a memorable convention keynote in 1976. Obama was just fifteen years old at the time, but Jordan’s words sounded the themes he would utter from that podium twenty-eight years later. “Are we to be one people bound to­gether by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation?” she thundered. “For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.”20

It was little noted how much Obama’s words in 2004 echoed Jordan’s. “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said. “There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America— there’s the United States of America.” 

The future, Obama was convinced, could not be painted in black and white. “I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina,” he said in 2008 after trounc­ing Clinton in the Palmetto State’s primary. “I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children.”21 

Erasing race had another side benefit. Before he could be taken seri­ously as a national candidate, Obama had to get conventional wisdom on his side. Since white opinion leaders rarely engaged in race-specific conversations and largely found them uncomfortable, color blindness was considered a good thing. They were willing to embrace a black man who did not make them feel guilty about race.  

This conventional wisdom about Barack Obama began forming, as it so often does about rising stars, in Washington—at Georgetown dinner parties and in fussy ballrooms all over the nation’s capital, where the city’s most self-referentially powerful lawmakers, government offi­cials, and journalists meet to socialize.

Membership organizations such as Washington’s Gridiron Club are almost entirely white. (Until 1974, the journalists’ group was entirely male as well.) How white? The first time I attended one of their annual spring dinners, in the mid-1990s, Donna Brazile and I were greeting each other amid the sea of white ties and white skin, happy to discover at least one other African American in the room. Suddenly, we felt our elbows encased in a firm grasp, and Vernon Jordan leaned in. He was grinning, his teeth very white against his very black skin. “This isn’t what they expected at all,” he chortled. We laughed too. When these clubs were created we were expected to be serving, not dining. Even now, I’d bet most people in that room possessed not a single black friend. And if they did, it was likely to be Vernon or Donna or me.