Politics and Progress in the New South
The Root explores where Obama, race and politics meet with Charlotte's young black mayor, Anthony Foxx.
President Barack Obama
"But not a single one of us ever planned --I know I didn't -- to be mayor of Charlotte or governor or senator," Gantt continued. "My mother would have shot me dead if I had said at the end of my college career, 'I think I want to be mayor of Charlotte one day': 'After all the sacrifices we made to get you a degree in architecture, you want to be up there with those terrible politicians?'
"I think, and I've said this to Anthony, the biggest difference is that you guys can plan political careers," Gantt said. "We fell into it and by happenstance kept moving up the ladder."
A Different Take on Progress
That judgment doesn't come as a surprise to former Newsweek columnist and contributing editor Ellis Cose, whose book The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage explores different generations' attitudes about racial progress. Using surveys of Harvard MBAs and graduates of A Better Chance, which since 1963 has provided educational opportunities by sending children to elite schools, Cose found an unexpected "huge generational change" since working on Rage of a Privileged Class. In that 1993 book, middle-class blacks fumed over what they perceived as equal opportunity persistently denied at the highest levels.
As Cose told The Root, the studies showed that younger people "overwhelmingly and across the board" said that while discrimination still exists, their attitude is "I don't expect it to affect me. I'm smart enough and prepared enough that I can figure out a way to get around it."
In the chapter "The End of Black Politics, Reconsidered," Cose examines the experiences of Obama and other younger African-American politicians who never believed anything was off-limits to them. The veteran campaigners and elected officials who came before -- Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Gantt -- handed them "a gift," Cose said. "They didn't have to carry the civil rights banner, and as a consequence, it made them much more acceptable to whites."
Cose also sees progress in seemingly unlikely places, such as the successful candidacies of "right-wing black Republicans" like Tim Scott, who won a U.S. congressional seat in South Carolina and beat Strom Thurmond's son in the primary along the way. "What I essentially see is even conservative white folks have gotten the message that they're not supposed to be racist anymore."
In the South, the importance of the Voting Rights Act and changing demographics (in North Carolina, that includes a surge in the Latino population) should not be underestimated. But it's also true that Gantt's campaigns were blueprints for how to appeal to a broad constituency. "I've watched others who've followed me when I ran for Senate talk about the environment, education, better health care, and not poverty programs," he said.
Gantt lost those Senate races, but other candidates are winning. "If one measured politics as a barometer for progress," he said, the argument could be made that "probably that has been our fastest road to achieving power in a community" -- and beyond.