(The Root) — Cory Booker's inevitable election to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday will prove, for large segments of the black community, both historic and bittersweet. Booker's meteoric rise since being elected mayor of Newark, N.J., in 2006 has been assisted by a well-crafted media persona.
Booker first burst onto Newark's political scene in 2002, when he launched an ill-fated run against incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, a political operator who — like many post civil rights era urban black politician — overcame creeping allegations of corruption through naked appeals to racial solidarity that would have been shameful if they hadn't been so extraordinarily successful. By the time of Booker's 2006 election, black urban politics seemed in vital need of some new blood.
The new mayor's unusual biography certainly offered a fresh start. A Rhodes scholar and graduate of Yale Law School, Booker served as founding member of the Chai Society, a Jewish membership club founded at Yale that featured prominent academics and business leaders whose friendship would help further his political career. If the young Barack Obama saw himself as a community organizer in the mold of civil rights-era activists, Booker, who is eight years younger than the president, aspired to a different model: the black neo-liberal political missionary.
On this score, Booker's tenure as mayor has been marked less by public policy transformations on behalf of the city's overwhelming poor and black population than a series of high-profile maneuvers that have regularly highlighted the new mayor's charisma, business-friendly networks and willingness to reside in the city's poverty-stricken South Ward area.
Tall, athletic, with the bearing of a former football player, Booker soon became a feature on late-night talk shows and in New York Times articles, and was perhaps the most riveting part of Brick City, the reality show set in Newark that ran on the Sundance Channel for two seasons. Brick City highlighted the best and worst aspects of "Bookerism," the dashing young mayor's political philosophy.
Bookerism expresses faith in the free market as a bedrock of American democracy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and even if it means breaking with the White House by defending hedge fund operators from rightfully outraged critics. But Booker's defense of the rich is both deeply personal as well as deftly political.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to the Newark Public Schools encapsulates the newly elected senator's trickle-down view of social change. A business-friendly mayor, whose Twitter account now boasts more than 1 million followers, was partnering with a billion-dollar company to aid a big-city urban school district. An outspoken proponent of charter schools, Booker built an alliance with private capital that served as a signal that Newark's public schools — and really the entire city — was open for a business model that found Wall Street and Silicon Valley mandarins choosing winners and losers for ordinary Americans.
Like the young Obama, Booker has made a point of burnishing bipartisan credentials by enjoying a cordial public relationship with New Jersey's bombastic and popular governor, Chris Christie. Painfully aware that a public rift with the governor might damage his statewide hopes and national ambitions, Booker has formed a working alliance that included signing on to the governor's pledge never to raise property taxes.
Bookerism is incapable of speaking truth to power. Instead, it seeks a place at the table of power interests, whose ambitions often conflict with the hopes and dreams of the poor, since they have nothing to do with the wealth redistribution that America so desperately needs. Trickle-down economics, even when peddled as public-private partnerships aimed at alleviating poverty and failing schools, do not work in the long run. However, in the short term they provide the kind of dazzling political optics and publicity that can help a black politician win national office.
For all of America's talk of racial progress and the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we live in a nation with one black governor (Massachusetts' Deval Patrick, whose term ends next year) and one senator (South Carolina Republican Tim Scott). Booker's election will double the latter number but should be more cause for national shame than pride.
Born in 1969, four years after the conclusion of the civil rights movement's heroic period, Booker came of age in an era of neo-liberal politics. It was an age in which Democratic President Bill Clinton favored "triangulation" and compromise over the unfettered liberalism that marked the New Deal and the Great Society.
Welfare reform and crime policy utilized the poor and black as mostly props in a political drama that gave even more power to the rich through policy (including ending financial regulation that led to the Great Recession) and a rhetoric that fetishized the "greed is good" ethos of the cinematic icon Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the classic film Wall Street.
Cory Booker, New Jersey's soon-to-be-elected senator, must have been paying attention. The muted response to his meteoric rise from a black community that, in its bones, realizes something is amiss is a testament not only to how far we have come since the civil rights era but also to how far we have fallen.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.