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.
Moreover, it is difficult to separate the media's coverage of Booker's heroic rescue from a well-meaning but insidious tendency in American popular culture to go overboard in lionizing certain types of black people. Scholars have identified the archetype of the "magical Negro," the mysterious individual who ends up rescuing or enriching the life of the protagonist. (The trope has been used in movies such as The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance.)
Critics such as Paul Gilroy argue that the magical Negro is just as sinister a stereotype as the more common negative stereotypes about black people because it robs blacks of an opportunity to be fully human. They cannot be complex or nuanced. They can only be superheroes or super villains.
Magical blackness infiltrated our political discourse in a powerful way in 2008. Barack Obama's nomination and election to the presidency was a watershed in American history, one that merited the attention it received. The discourse, however, often framed Obama as larger than life.
Rush Limbaugh literally dubbed Obama a "magic Negro" when he aired a spoof of the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" to malign the Rev. Al Sharpton. Obama's supporters spoke of him in messianic terms. Since then, whenever President Obama has struggled politically, he has faced bitter criticism on the left and the right for not meeting the absurd standard set by the hype of the 2008 campaign.
In the days after the fire rescue, Mayor Booker demurred when asked about being a hero. Many will no doubt infer an appropriate sense of modesty in his comments. And good home training no doubt explains much of his demonstrated humility. It's also likely, however, that Booker's reluctance to fully embrace his newfound incandescence is a smart attempt to rescue himself from an American public that all too easily burns through its black leaders.
Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.