Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

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

And in a widely noted address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the nation’s oldest civil rights orga­nization—Obama admitted he was aware of the sensitivity his com­ments stirred. “I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks, talking about responsibility,” he said to the three thousand members gathered in Cincinnati. “At the NAACP, I’m here to report, I’m not going to stop talking about it.”  

Later in that speech he added, “When we are taking care of our own stuff, then a lot of other folks are going to be interested in joining up and working with us and taking care of America’s stuff.”

Many conservative black churchgoers applauded this approach, ris­ing to their feet in venue after venue to cheer him on. But some black leaders wondered if something wasn’t missing. Why wasn’t Obama speaking as a champion for black people instead of pointing out their shortcomings? Why wasn’t he talking specifically about racial dis­parities when he discussed issues such as education, health care, and criminal justice? Or, as Jesse Jackson famously whispered into an open microphone, was Obama “talking down to black people”?

Obama was not in this to prove he could lead or speak only to black people. The goal here was to romance the entire country. When I asked Obama in the summer of 2007 about whether the prospect of electing a black president was affecting how people viewed him, he recounted a conversation he’d had with Jackson.  

“He said something that’s very accurate,” Obama told me. “He said, ‘Barack, we had to break the door down, which means sometimes you’re not polite. You get bloodied up a little bit. You get some scars. You haven’t had to go through that, and that’s a good thing. That’s part of what we went through. I don’t expect you to have the same battle scars that I did.’”  

Obama made his most overt attempt to acknowledge the racial debt in March 2007, when every living member of civil rights royalty gathered in Selma, Alabama, to observe and reenact the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Georgia con­gressman John Lewis, who’d had his head bashed in with a brick dur­ing the original protest forty-two years before, spent part of the day attempting to get Obama and Hillary Clinton to link arms for the photographers. It did not work, but Obama was there with another goal in mind anyway. He needed to silence the naysayers within his own community, many of whom had known the Clintons long before they had ever heard Obama’s name.