The Root: Washington's New Black Pack

Dayo Olopade
Washington Reporter, The Root
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; 12:00 PM

"From the Justice Department to the United Nations to the new Office of Urban Policy, Obama has empowered black Americans at the highest levels of government... Alongside the high-level Cabinet appointees, a junior class of dynamic African-American political leadership -- call them "the black pack" -- has arrived in Washington... A great migration of black talent is under way. The savvy, ambitious class of 2008 shares its candidate's progressivism -- as well as deep bonds that will be essential to carrying out Obama's agenda. These young guns (average age: 27) are already doing some heavy lifting."

Dayo Olopade, Washington reporter for The Root, was online Wednesday, March 25 to discuss her article on 'Washington's New Black Pack' -- ten young African-Americans who are making their mark in the Obama administration.

A transcript follows.


Tired of this: Okay, why are we having this chat? Seriously now, we are in the 21st century, and I hate to break it to everyone, this is a dead issue. Most people have moved on from this rhetoric and to keep talking about it just keeps tensions up instead of moving forward. Enough is Enough

Dayo Olopade: Hello all, thanks so much for joining me online in celebrating the accomplishments of The Root's "Talented Ten." I hope this will be a productive debate.

To respond to that first question: I think the reason to have this chat is to answer any questions that folks might have about the new jobs these campaign workers have earned in Washington. After a total of three years in the capital, alternately in school, working on the Hill and as a reporter, I often find that the federal government can be a confusing place!

I'm here to explain, and talk generally about the role of young blacks in politics. The big news isn't necessarily that these ten young guns are black--though it's wonderful--but that they now have huge responsibilities, across the government--from the Office of Faith-based initiatives to the White House Social Secretary's office to the Office of Public Liaison.

Believe me, there were far more than these ten out there, and in the age of Obama, thousands more to follow. But it's great to see that these talented young people are giving back to the country and the candidate that gave them so much.


This is nice, but...: Do they have any power, or is this another example of "black faces in high places"? If they do have some power, how will it filter down to the black masses? Let's not be fooled!

Dayo Olopade: Part of what I emphasized in this story was the real hands-on management training that our "Talented Ten" received on the trail. This wasn't so different from the experiences of other organizers in past political campaigns--and was one shared by organizers of other races who worked their hearts out for Obama. But these folks proved themselves and were promoted accordingly--which means that, as new White House/State Department Liaison Marlon Marshall pointed out, "you're going to see changes across the bedrock of the Democratic party."

We remember the young strategists of, say, the 1992 Clinton campaign--James Carville, Paul Begala, George Stephanopolous. Look where they are now! By bringing young black organizers into the fold and then giving them opportunities to learn on the job, leading logistically complex, multi-state, politically sensitive and often grueling field operations across the nation, the Obama campaign uniquely provided a secondary education in politics. This can only be good for the future face of American politics, and should in turn attract more young black folks into the democratic process.

As for our ten being empowered here in Washington--I do think that there is something really remarkable about just being in the room when tough and important decisions are made. With an average age of 27, they won't be deciding when to push the nuclear button, but let's not forget: Obama's White House is very diverse already, the folks who *are* positioned over the proverbial button are black men and women like Valerie Jarrett, Patrick Gaspard, Michael Strautmanis, Mona Sutphen, and all of the cabinet secretaries of color that Obama hired.


Fayetteville, Arkansas: The article you wrote was absolutely wonderful and inspiring. I noticed that a majority of the young people attended Ivy League schools. Do you think that played a part or gave them somewhat of an advantage in any way? whether it be connections, or opportunities others who did not attend those schools may not have had? thank you for writing this article, it's nice to see young African Americans paving the way!

Dayo Olopade: Thanks for the nice words!

I would point out that just three of our Ten went to Ivy league schools for their undergraduate education. I know that is hardly proportional representation, but believe, there were just dozens more young black talents that didn't make our final list who are just as well-situated, just as savvy, and just as likely to make a big difference in American politics.

We clearly wanted to play off W.E.B DuBois' idea of a "talented tenth"--so we had to cut the list off somewhere. But this is in no way meant to diminish the accomplishments of other organizers, from all races, colleges, and walks of life.


Again, still tired of this: Yes, it is great that they are giving back, but why make race an issue? Why not just speak about all the young people who are giving back or whoever they are. Race card is just gotten so old and done over. Enough is Enough!

Dayo Olopade: I wouldn't call this playing the "race card." It's hugely significant that the opportunities of which black Americans have been deprived as a result of the color of their skin are being realized so effortlessly by young black organizers (and as mentioned, their higher-ups in government). Forgive the length, but I want to share a letter from one of The Root's readers, a white woman living in Maryland, which I think eloquently makes the case for our "New Black Pack":


As a middle-aged white woman who grew up in an era when there were very few images of people that looked like me, I know how important - and powerful - images (or lack of them) can be. Role models are so important. As a kid, I very clearly remember thinking when I saw a photo of a woman in a position of power - "oh, I can do that". Later as an adult, I realized that the possibility that I could be in a position of power did not occur to me until I saw some that looked like me (a white woman) in that position... Ever since, I've been a huge promoter of getting the positive images of all different types of people out there.

That is why, a few years back I chastised the Washington Post for publishing a beautiful photo of a young (3 year old) African American child at an outdoor cultural event holding his father's hand, because they had cropped the photo so that the father's head was cut out! We saw plenty of negative images of black men in the paper - head and all. Here was a positive image of a father and he became disembodied. I implored them to become aware of their responsibility to present representative images from across the community. This is way when my kids were little, I purposed included books that had a variety of nationalities, genders, races as characters. Images count!

Which brings me to my point. I loved the article, The New Black Pack. How thrilling to see the next generation take the reins! And what an inspiration to young kids - black and white - to see so many accomplished, committed, young people engaged in the administration. I think you should convert the article into a color poster with a new title that says something like: Yes You Can!


I think that is why The Root exists, and why our ten are important--and would happily distribute copies of the beautiful spread to any DC classroom that wants one!


What about HBCUs?: Kudos to the young people represented here! I am sure that they will do the administration and country proud and go on to do great things.

Though I am an ardent supporter of President Obama and believe that he is poised to become our greatest president, I am concerned about what seems to be his preference for those who attend so-called "elite" institutions.

His predilection for those who attend these schools is evidenced by those listed here as well as by those chosen by him for high-level positions in his administration.

I applaud him for starting his "Yes We Can" training program which was "designed to expand opportunities for people of color in politics." However, if those opportunities are limited to only a very small group of minorities that attend a handful of schools, I am not sure how much "opportunity" is really being "expanded".

I understand that both the President and the First Lady have Ivy League credentials. I also understand that people often hire those that attended the same schools that they did. However, I think the President is missing a golden opportunity here.

There is tremendous talent and stellar skill sets at Historically Black Colleges and other schools around the country. Let's take advantage of these talents by expanding the pool and allowing those that would not ordinarily have the chance an opportunity to show what they can do. That's change that I can believe in.

Dayo Olopade: I think the "Yes We Can" program is a phenomenal development, and was an early sign that Obama would be a different kind of leader and politician. The Organizing Fellowships Obama offered, and the "Camp Obama" training programs that took place during the final months of the 2008 campaign had a similar intention--and were very focused on black organizers (200 folks attended a "Camp Obama" at Morris Brown University in Georgia this August). I'd hope that kind of sustained outreach continues.

But again, what I heard from our ten is that some black folks just don't think to go into political organizing. The focus on professions and needed wealth-building in black communities--via medicine, business, law or engineering--may contribute to that outcome. I think, however, that the Obama campaign changed that. Addisu Demissie, one of our subjects and now the national political director of Organizing for America, says Obama "made field cool"--and I think that's true. In January I wrote for The Root about this move toward selfless service in a recession ( And, as Elizabeth Wilkins, another one of our ten, put it, "you can both win elections and do community organizing."

The president is also generally interested in promoting public service as a meaningful avenue for young lives. His campaign pedagogy, as well as his proposed Youth Service programs are a testament to that.


DC: I'm sorry but doesn't this cut against the whole post-racial, "I'm a mutt" spin the president was trying to put on this? As a Democrat, federal attorney, and Native American I think this cuts the wrong way with other minorities who are here, have been here and continue doing "good work".

We're making gains but singling out one group rather than highlighting the myriad of minorities that coalesced around Obama is counterproductive.

Dayo Olopade: I disagree that this is counterproductive. A big part of this political moment on which the American public is congratulating itself centers around the idea that, as youngsters chanted after Obama's South Carolina victory, "Race doesn't matter."

That is very true for every child whose first presidential memory will be of a black one. But another part of this is that blacks are underrepresented in politics outside of majority-minority districts. (Run down the roster of the Congressional Black Caucus--how many of these fine lawmakers, won as big with whites as Obama?) Obama's young black organizers now have the skill set to run a campaign from start to finish, and know *exactly* what it takes to win a congressional district--from lily-white Iowa and Nebraska to the increasingly Latino Nevada. This knowledge could help more crossover political victories for black staff, and even prompt runs for office among younger, more "post-racial" candidates in general. (I know a few of our ten have their eyes on office in future.)

Last night at his press conference, Obama seemed uncomfortable with the question from a reporter about how race has affected his first 60 days in office. He was right to be so brief about it. As he said, "Right now, the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged." That is, not by race alone--he has lots of work to do! And what really matters is how the next 60 years of American politics shape up. I think that these ten have us off to a marvelous start.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, and keep reading the Root!


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