Outlook: Civil Rights Vets Won't Pass Torch to Obama
Candidate Is Succeeding Where Old Guard Failed -- and May Be Writing Their Epitaph

William Jelani Cobb
Associate Professor of History, Spelman College
Tuesday, January 15, 2008 12:00 PM

"The most amazing thing about the 2008 presidential race is not that a black man is a bona fide contender, but the lukewarm response he has received from the luminaries whose sacrifices made this run possible. ... That's because, positioned as he is between the black boomers and the hip-hop generation, Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership -- or at least the illusion of their influence."

Spelman College associate professor of history William Jelani Cobb was online Tuesday, Jan. 15 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article examining how the specter of irrelevancy has made some of the nation's most prominent blacks unwilling or reticent to support Barack Obama's presidential bid.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Centreville, Va.: I want to thank you for your article on Sunday. It was dead on to what my husband and I have been talking about. African Americans do have to make a decision about new leadership, something I think many young black Americans 35 and below have been longing for.

William Jelani Cobb: Thank you. I'm glad you found the piece useful. It seems to have been a subject that was on a number of people's minds.


Laurel, Md.: Don't polling data show that blacks who are children of civil rights-era immigrants (like Mr. Obama) have a very different view of what it means to be black in America that the descendants of former slaves and segregation victims? Is there a credibility gap to his assertions about what it's like to "be black in America" when (the black part) of his family's history only dates to the mid-20th century in the Land of Lincoln?

William Jelani Cobb: I can't respond to polling data specifically, but I definitely think that there is a generational and historical shift. That said, I don't think the "black" experience ever has been monolithic. Obama may have an unusual variant of it, but it is not necessarily a unique one.


Westbury, N.Y.: Good Morning: I'm wondering if what you mention -- with regards to the old guard and their reluctance to cede turf -- is something you're finding in the area of public intellectuals? "The Devil & Dave" is a great read! Prosper.

William Jelani Cobb: I think that's kind of an apples-and-oranges situation. For better or worse the "public intellectual" arena is probably more democratic than our political ones are.


Silver Spring, Md.: Please help me understand why these black leaders are in love with Bill Clinton. Could you tell me what Bill Clinton has done to lift up African Americans? I can't understand why we owe him or his wife anything. Please correct me if I am wrong, but the three strikes law and welfare reform was created by Bill Clinton. Also, education and health care didn't improve under Bill Clinton.

William Jelani Cobb: I think Bill Clinton has gotten a great deal of traction from his social affinity for black folk -- an affinity that does not necessarily parallel his policy prerogatives. in addition to the points you raise, we also had the specter of Clinton hanging Jocelyn Elders and Lani Guinier out to dry.


Centreville, Va.: How do we educate black America on the fact that Obama can't and shouldn't turn into Rev. Sharpton in this campaign?

William Jelani Cobb: I don't think we're in danger of Obama turning into Sharpton. They have fundamentally different operating modes and agendas. Moreover, Obama has an actual constituency he has to answer to -- Sharpton does not.


Washington: I think you are right on target -- the torch has passed to a new generation of Black leaders like Cory Booker in Newark, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and our own Adrian Fenty, each of whom attempt to transcend the issue of race. I think the "politics of protest" era is nearing the end and a new more inclusive and non-racial politics is taking its place.

William Jelani Cobb: I agree that there is a new generation on the landscape, but I don't think that the era of protest is over. Unfortunately we still have racial outrages that occur with some regularity (remember we were reading about nooses only a few weeks ago). What I do think is over, or at least nearing its end, is the era of a particular brand of self-aggrandizing, self-interested protest leader.


New York: The Jackson/Young crowd seems to capitalize on their past struggles. Have they sold out to the Clintons and the Democratic Party Machine, at the same time abandoning the black cause?

William Jelani Cobb: I think that Young, Jackson, et al have made a mistake that many long-term leaders make in confusing their own interests with those of the people they are supposed to represent.

Jackson, for the record, has endorsed Obama. But it is the most tepid and ambivalent of endorsements, one that certainly seems motivated by his need to continue the illusion of relevance.


Suffolk, Va.: If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he have approved of his surrogates' attempts to derail the dream that he saw at the mountain top?

William Jelani Cobb: I think it's hard to know how King would have viewed this situation. It's much easier simply to look at the stands that Jackson, Lewis & Co. took 40 years ago and compare them to where they are now. At some point they became a key part of the establishment they once were protesting, and obviously that creates tangles of personal and political contradictions.


Atlanta: Why did you belittle the civil rights veterans by calling them "boys"? They proved their manhood before you even were conceived by facing the threat of violence with unwavering courage. Please explain yourself.

William Jelani Cobb: Interesting. Had I called them an "old boy" network no one wouldn't have noticed. I could've called them "brothers," and that's not technically accurate either. It was a turn of phrase used, for the record, by another black person. Relax.


Durango, Colo.: But such is the nature of movements. Johnson was the last of the New Deal-era presidents; Carter wasn't and Clinton definitely wasn't. The end seems to be at hand for Goldwater-Reagan conservatives; not one of the candidates has the ability to hold together that coalition. And it is, sadly, the nature of organizations -- not that the Civil Rights Activists are an organization -- is to do everything within their power to defend themselves and assure their own survival. Each era needs a leader to form its coalition. Era-changing elections are about who will identify those who are ready to coalesce, and bringing them together.

William Jelani Cobb: I think you make a valid point. The thing is, though, this story didn't have to play itself out this way. Had that earlier generation taken an active role in bringing the next along as opposed to adopting a choke hold on authority we wouldn't have be having this conversation. How different would Jesse Jackson's legacy have been if he had said in 1992 that his goal was to produce 200 black civic, business, arts and community leaders as opposed to desperate attempts to keep himself in the spotlight?


New York: Why is Barack Obama (for whom I will probably vote) considered a black man? His father is black, his mother is white. He is just as much a white man as he is a black man.

William Jelani Cobb: Identity is largely something self-constructed. He is a black man because, quite simply, his skin color and phenotype would ensure that he would encounter the same life conditions -- for better or worse -- that other "black" people would. The overwhelming majority of "blacks" in this country have significant white ancestry, but no one had difficulty deciding who to put on the back of the bus either.


Arlington, Va.: Joseph Califano wrote a very interesting editorial in today's paper on how Dr. King and President Johnson worked together to move our country. Do you think Sen. Clinton botched it in her presentation of trying to say the presidency has been important too in moving our country ahead in human/civil rights? Do you think many older civil rights leaders have trouble giving up leadership to new strong leaders?

William Jelani Cobb: I think -- in our era of sound-bites and 24-hour news cycles -- that it was a treacherous comparison, andthat it would have been politically wiser to steer clear of it entirely.


Philadelphia: Just wanted to say how much I appreciated the insight and careful thought that was demonstrated in your article. It was provocative without being inflammatory, and unwaveringly honest without being mean-spirited. And despite the strong and passionate ideas of the piece, it didn't seems to have an "agenda." You put into words what I had been thinking for weeks now, and I'm happy to see the truth there in, uh, black and white.

William Jelani Cobb: Thank you. I'm glad you appreciated the article.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Great article Mr. Cobb! It was very refreshing to read the truth that not all so-called black leaders are excited about Obama because of their allegiance to the Democratic Party. I especially liked the line "these four men likely represent the interests of the Democratic Party insiders more than those of the Black community." I have believed this for some time now and am very glad to know others feel the same. Shame on our so-called leaders who continue to sell us out to the Democratic Party.

William Jelani Cobb: Thank you. I appreciate your perspective.


Washington: You said if I was weary now, I would be exhausted by November, and boy were you right! What do you make of this latest skirmish between the Clinton and Obama camps? It seems to me that the accusation that Obama is "playing the race card" is far more damaging than the drug issue or the Iraq issue because it tarnishes his clean (and let's face it, colorblind) image. It would be hard to turn Obama into Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson, but the whole "race card" thing could tap into a well of resentment and defensiveness amongst white voters (especially with moderately inclined independents, who might oppose affirmative action and other similar policies). As you said, if Clinton is going to lose the black vote anyway, it might be in her interest to keep these issues in the news.

William Jelani Cobb: Well, I think the real issue is that even if Clinton wins the nomination, she might well have alienated so many black voters that they'll ignore her in the general election. It was extremely tone-deaf to have Bob Johnson, who is reviled widely in the black community, deliver a proxy attack on Obama. It almost certainly solidified the perception that the blacks supporting her are doing so out of self-interest, not community interest.


Philadelphia: For someone who also is sandwiched between the black boomers and the hip-hop nation, I agree with your comments 100 percent. The older civil rights leaders need to sit down now. Their work was greatly appreciated, but it is time for another generation to use the tools of today to advance our agenda.

William Jelani Cobb: It's difficult to present that argument without sounding disrespectful -- and that was my intention. But I agree with your sentiment that it is time to move toward new models of leadership.


Washington: I was really appalled by Andrew Young's statements. Has he recanted in any way? What do you think about Bob Johnson's thinly veiled attempt to reference Obama's past drug use? I would argue Johnson is in no position to judge considering his history of showing exploitative material on his network.

William Jelani Cobb: Bob Johnson is the last person Hillary should be on a stage with if she is trying to attract black voters. Lots of black folks loathe what his network stands for and the images it promotes. I think that attack he launched did more to harm the Clinton campaign than it did to Obama's.


Boise, Idaho: In your opinion, what do you think the black community sees in the Clinton campaign that they don't see in the Obama campaign?

William Jelani Cobb: I don't know that that is the best way of viewing it. I think that lots of black folk were skeptical that Obama could win with white voters and thereby went to Clinton in hopes that they wouldn't "throw their vote away," to use a phrase I heard. That view changed dramatically after Iowa.


Takoma Park, Md.: Interesting piece. I wonder, did the same thing ever happen when America's Founding Fathers were getting old and gray? Was there a young rising star who bent them out of shape? Which Founding Father was the bitterest? Which was the most responsive to the new currents?

William Jelani Cobb: Good question. Interestingly enough, we saw a similar kind of thing with the Founders -- especially those who aligned themselves with the Federalist Party. By the end of the War of 1812, they were well on their way to political obsolescence, while Jefferson-influenced Republicans became essentially heirs to a one-party state. Andrew Jackson's rise -- particularly in the election of 1824 -- is probably the closest we come to seeing an upstart who shook up the early political establishment (and helped form an entirely new political order).


Laurel, Md.: My point exactly. It's disgusting to see and hear some of the things that are being said. Where are the so-called black leaders who have been saying for years that we need to help each other stay on course and that we are our brothers' keepers? Where are the leaders who spoke all that garbage at the State of the Black Union address? They all have their personal agenda. I believe and feel that our ancestors are with Barack Obama and will continue to shine the light through the dark path ahead.

William Jelani Cobb: Thank you for your perspective. I agree with much of what you've said.


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