A Candidate Who Mirrors Their Lives

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Back in September, they were seemingly alone.

Young black professionals, raised on MTV and "The Cosby Show," flocked to Washington's hot spots as the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus became all about Barack Obama. Raising money for him. Getting a glimpse of him. Just being a part of him.

A crowd peppered with a doctor, some lawyers and grad students mingled over Hennessy and hope while hip-hop throbbed at Bohemian Caverns on U Street. Outside, an artist put browns and blues and blacks together on a canvas and a picture gradually emerged: Sen. Barack Obama, possible president.

Entrance into the nightclub that Wednesday evening was a $25 contribution to the Obama campaign. "That's a bad night at Love," said Jarvis Houston, 30, of Chicago, referring to the popular D.C. club. "That's two drinks."

Back then, there was an exclusivity to it all. A velvet rope. A woman with a clipboard and a list of names. By the time the weekend was over, the crowd had raised nearly $11,000 at the Caverns and rustled up $150,000 at Oya restaurant for the candidacy of a man they could claim as their own.

This mid-20s to mid-40s generation has never questioned Obama's authenticity as a black man, even as their parents voiced doubt before voting began about a biracial candidate who never marched for civil rights. To many young black professionals, Obama was black like them. They brought the noise with Public Enemy but could sing along with Duran Duran.

To them, Barack and Michelle were Cliff and Clair, and they were headed to the White House with their two little Rudys. They embraced his candidacy early and slapped Obama '08 bumper stickers on their cars.

"He is very familiar to them," says Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. "He's done a great job of doing what middle-class blacks do, work in a predominantly white world but still maintain a sense of racial identity and groundedness."

Now, Obama has piled up primary wins from Alaska to Maine and built broad support across all parts of American society, to the deep satisfaction of these early adopters. Their moods rise and fall with his campaign's successes and setbacks, disappointed after Clinton wins in Texas and Ohio but confident their man will still claim the prize. They worry that controversial rhetoric from the senator's former pastor will influence uncommitted superdelegates, then enumerate Obama's lead in the popular vote, number of wins and pledged delegates.

He is part of a new generation of black political leaders, including Mayor Adrian Fenty, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, that did not emerge from the black activism of the '60s. Nor did he emerge from the black church, once the incubator of African American political leadership, says Bart Landry, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. His candidacy marks "the political maturation of the black community," he says. "Finally, black leadership is not coming from the church, it's coming from the secular society."

Those who are young, black and affluent also have matured, Landry says, noting that while their parents may have sought to integrate white neighborhoods, this generation is establishing its own communities. They have helped to create wealthy enclaves in Prince George's County and in DeKalb County, Ga., he points out.

One of those is Darryl Wiggins, 46, who owns a copying business and lives in Shepherd Park. He co-hosted the Oya fundraiser last fall. "I knew other people would vote for him," says Wiggins, "because he has the best judgment and the best ideas."

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