When Cory Booker recently raced into a burning home to help save the life of a neighbor, his act of bravery turned the Newark, N.J., mayor into one of the lead stories of the day. News outlets from CNN to Fox News covered Booker’s heroism.
Not to be outdone, fans on Twitter conjured up #corybookerstories to reveal even more amazing feats from the mayor. Overnight, Booker’s courage transformed him from a widely admired mayor into something of a superhero.
While the feel-good stories and tweets were certainly uplifting, it is important to consider the long-term implications of the coverage of this episode. Black elected officials like Booker face a “hero paradox” when they are perceived as living legends.
As part of my research for a new book, The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America, I found that a new generation of black leaders regularly find themselves lionized, especially in contrast with the older black politicians they replace. The support that these young politicians experience is earnest and well-meaning, but it often triggers latent, class-based resentments among constituents and creates unrealistic expectations that threaten to undermine their ability to serve effectively.
When Booker was elected mayor of Newark in 2006, he took on one of the toughest jobs in America. Newark is a city that has long faced challenges. Even before the city experienced devastating riots in 1967, deindustrialization was taking jobs and residents out of the city.
Since the riots, Newark has struggled with poverty, unemployment and general blight. According to the most recent census data, nearly a third of the city’s residents ages 25 and older have not completed high school. Median household income in Newark is about half of what it is for the state of New Jersey and a little more than two-thirds the national median. In The New Black Politician, I show that for at least the 2000s (and probably longer), Newark’s unemployment rate has been one-and-a-half to two times the New Jersey and national unemployment rates.
These are the kinds of problems that a mayor cannot leap in a single bound. Newark’s challenges developed over generations, and it will take years to correct them. Under Booker’s leadership, Newark has undergone some positive transformations, but even he would admit that the city must still make tremendous strides. And when we turn an act of everyday heroism into the stuff of legend, we may lull ourselves into thinking that if Booker can save women from burning buildings or chase bank robbers (yes, he did that in 2006), then he can swiftly and single-handedly solve years of urban blight, entrenched poverty and systemic inequality.