The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill [Racialicious Reads]

by Latoya Peterson


To understand civil rights, you must understand how it feels…to be trapped in someone else’s stereotype.” – Deval Patrick

During the year of 2008, people loved to talk about change, normally as a positive outcome righting a wrong or correcting a historical slight.

However, change never comes easily. Friction always occurs between the different groups who are advocating for their view of the world to become the dominant one. In The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, Gwen Ifill probes deeply into the causes and creation of political friction, dubbing the phenomenon “sandpaper politics” and documenting the lives and stories of those African American politicians who found a way to live through the heaviest friction point and manage come out polished and battle ready.

The Breakthrough’s title is a bit misleading. Ifill’s book isn’t really about Obama – it is the story of a generation in flux, an exploration of the rise of post-civil rights black leadership using Obama’s amazing political journey as a symbol of the shifting power dynamic. While telling Obama’s story, she also interviews dozens of young black leaders on the cusp of their own breakthroughs while navigating the tricky realm of crossover politics.

The new groups of young black politicians are a small piece of a larger division in black political thought. Termed “the post civil rights generation,” the new generation of up and coming leaders has different memories of America. Instead of sit-ins, soda fountains, and overt forms of racism like segregation, we now have multiculturalism, hip-hop, and covert forms of racism.
The Civil Rights Generation ushered in a completely different world for their children to grow up – one in which we would never know what is was like to be denied a seat at a lunch counter or forbidden from applying for certain jobs due to the color of our skin. They braved all types of horrors in order for us to be where we are today.

As Ifill writes,

Breaking through has its costs. John Lewis was hit in the head with a break at Selma. Vernon Jordan was shot. And families play a price as well: Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife and children were threatened, and shortly after [Deval] Patrick moved into the corner office on Beacon Hill, his wife, Diane, dropped out of public sight to receive treatment for depression. (p. 195)

Earlier in the book, Ifill referred to the high cost of ambition for black leaders, grimly counting off the death toll – Malcom, Marvin, and Medgar were all murdered at the heights of their careers, before any of them had reached the age of forty. A grim reality of working and agitating for change is having that reality hanging over head and knowing that we are just a slim 40 years from when this type of violence against civil rights leaders was common place.

However, the major theme of The Breakthrough is overwhelming optimism in the face of difficult odds.

Cory Booker, the subject of chapter seven and mayor of Newark, New Jersey, summarizes the attitudes of many young black politicos when he says,

“My parents used to tell me as a young kid that we were a country that was formed in perfect ideals but a savagely imperfect reality,” Cory Booker said. “You had people that were enslaved and in chains seeing the most horrible and heinous realities, but yet, somehow, they saw freedom and they saw liberty.” (p. 144)

The Post Civil Rights Generation is still coming into its own. Jesse Jackson Jr. spoke to Gwen Ifill about “the movement in the black community towards accountable leadership” – a marked change away from media domination and sound bytes (characterized by the tactics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson) and towards measured results, community involvement, and follow through.

Bakari Sellers (son of civil rights leader Cleveland Sellers) confirmed that we are rapidly learning about the modern convergence of race, class, and gender. “The struggle has changed,” Sellers informs Ifill. “If you’re poor and black in South Carolina or poor and white in South Carolina, you face basically the same issues.”

Indeed, the struggle has changed a bit from the days of marches and fire hoses. Cornell Belcher, an Obama pollster was almost moved to tears as he explained:

“Here you are in South Carolina, three blocks from where the Confederate flag is still flying in front of the state capitol and all the history that has held in that state,” Belcher, who is black told me later. “And you have a group of young white people shouting, ‘Race doesn’t matter.’ Now, do they think there is no racism? No. But were they screaming and shouting the world they wanted to exist? Yeah. That is powerful and profound and very different.” (p. 159)

While Belcher is incredulous at the swiftness of change, The Breakthrough often reminds us of how some parts of the process haven’t changed much at all. Ifill’s writing is informed by the intrinsic understanding that comes when one has to be twice as good to go half as far; and provides examples as to when if all other factors are equal, black candidates still find themselves holding the short straw. She interviewed Natalie Davis, a white contender for the US Senate in 1996. The Alabama native pulled no punches.

“In the general election, for a Democrat to beat a Republican, a Democrat has to get about 40 percent of the white vote,” says Davis. “I do not know how you get there. If you’re white, I don’t even know how you get there. If you’re black, it’s that much more difficult. (p. 107)

For the post Civil Rights generation Artur Davis, this perception is a surmountable obstacle. His optimism has put him on a path to run for governor in 2010. However, older politicos are more weary of his chances. Alabama state representative John Knight admired Davis’ ambitions but noted “I would say, realistically, that this is Alabama.”

Pointing out that often the ideas and prejudices that color politics are often left unspoken, Ifill makes a point to mention,

The only thing more politically debilitating than the “black enough” question is the “too black” question. The latter is seldom asked out loud, and it is never asked by black people. It is, however, the question that can cost mainstream black candidates an election. (p. 172)

Later in the breakthrough, Ifill spends a significant chunk of time with the relationship of Barack Obama and Reverend Wright, parsing out how Obama’s association with right became a nightmare for his campaign. As a candidate seeking the Presidency on a platform of unity, Wright’s words and actions began to push Obama into “too black” (or as others note, too angry) territory.

Ifill also painstakingly describes the balancing acts that black candidates have to walk, being accessible enough to other blacks while not alienating white voters. Ifill spoke to David Paterson, the governor of New York about some of the emotional tight ropes black politicians walk.
Once Clinton conceded, [David] Paterson embraced Obama with the understanding that, in many ways, both men were playing the same game – trying to meet expectations and test that never face white candidates.

“In my short time – and I know I am just sipping at what Barack Obama has to go through gallons of every day, Paterson told me, “the energy that takes away from your effort is immense.” (p. 119)

Internal divisions within the black community also fall under Ifill’s laser focus. In “The Politics of Identity”, she devotes an entire chapter to the amorphous concept of blackness and the reality of black politicians who must prove time and time again that they fit some arbitrary determination of “black enough.” Ifill introduces the historical root of this internal conflict:

Governors, mayors, and lawmakers of all stripes I spoke with have been confronted with the question – especially early in their careers and especially if they were new to the game. Even Walter White, the founder of the NAACP, who campaigned against lynching and in favor of equality in education, was deemed inauthentic in some quarters because of his fair skin. (p. 159)

She also examines the demands placed on black candidates by their black constituencies. After noting “when race was a factor [in community issues], [Deval] Patrick was a factor,” Ifill spends some time describing the heavy burden of expectation black communities place on their elected officials:

In late 2007, when thirteen year old Steven Odom, a black boy, was shot to death on his way home from playing basketball, all eyes turned to Partick. Why hadn’t he stopped the violence? Why hadn’t he paid prompt respects to the boy’s mother? No one had asked this of previous governors. The difference was that Partick was being held to a new standard, one dictated by race. (p. 201)

In addition to the needs of their community, black upstart politicians also have to contend with Civil Rights era leaders, who are often still active within their communities and are reluctant to pass the baton to the next generation. This also leads to friction, as one of the biggest differences between the Civil Rights generation and the post Civil Rights generation is the attitude toward paying dues. While leaders like Obama, Patrick, and Booker often want to step up and start assuming responsibility, older leaders often push back, requesting that these new leaders need to temper their ambitions.

“Here’s the catch,” the younger [Steve] Adubato told [Gwen Ifill]. I don’t believe that Cory [Booker] has ever really mastered, or understands there is a need to master, showing the proper respect. Touching the right bases. Frankly, kissing the right asses to put himself to put himself in a position where he could, if not ameliorate, just minimize some of that negativity.” (p. 152)

Members of the post civil rights generation chafe at this idea, about needing to bow to legacy and establishment, instead aching to create a new way forward. Part of the reason for the age based gap is the understanding of the evolution of race and racism. For example, while Booker concedes there are “persistent and insidious divisions between black and white” that still plagues society, he ultimately believes that a comprehensive strategy to beat racism will involve a united coalition:
Racism is not a black problem,” he adds. “It’s not a white problem. It’s our problem. I think that’s the kind of dialogue we’re looking for on race.”

Ifill notes that an “eager and growing audience among citizens of every race ready to embrace the notion that the end of race based politics is near.” Indeed, much of this friction Ifill describes is just a part of the changing times.

In addition to racial coverage, Ifill takes a chapter to quickly cover “The Race-Gender Clash.” Courageously wading back into the superficially hashed out race-versus-gender meme that fluttered around the primaries and spilled over into the election, Ifill grabs polling data to note:

In exit poll after exit poll during the primaries, voters who said race mattered voted against Obama, while voters who said gender mattered voted for Clinton. In a conservative state such as Kentucky, where Clinton hoped to do well, more than one in five voters in the preelection survey viewed Obama’s race as a negative. When asked about gender, however, 63 percent said it didn’t matter and 11 percent said they viewed it as a positive. (p. 76)

(It should also be noted that earlier in “The Race-Gender Clash” chapter, Ifill quotes Donna Brazile saying “We spent precious time debating race versus gender, as if racism and sexism are not both toxic.”)

The Breakthrough reads like a serious of well reported newspaper articles. However, Ifill rarely inserts herself in the narrative, which is unfortunate. While the book is written loosely in the first person, she rarely dedicates space to herself and her story.

For example, when discussing the stigma candidates face for having a little too much education, she explores the idea of “talking white,” an accusation that lands with a sting for many educated blacks as it is a backhanded slap suggesting that they have been accused of that as well. Ifill notes this dynamic, and adds a small sentence about how she too has had this accusation leveled against her. Ifill also provides a memory of attending a Gridiron Club organization where she, Donna Brazile, and Vernon Jordan were the only blacks in the room. She writes,

When these clubs were created we were expected to be serving, not dining. Even now, I’d bet most people in that room possessed not a single black friend. And if they did, it was likely to be Vernon or Donna or me. (p. 65)

These tantalizing glimpses of Ifill’s life provide some excellent background for her discussion of change and politics. As a person reporting on the front lines of race and politics for so long, The Breakthrough would have been enhanced by a little more reflection from the author. While Ifill’s role and training for the last thirty or so odd years requires this objective eye toward the world, there are a few places in the book that could have benefited from a personal narrative to illustrate her point.

Another element missing in the book is moving the racial discussion a little beyond the black and white binary. This is difficult, because our country was founded in this way, that blacks are the underclass and whites are the ruling class. However, part of the change that post Civil Rights leaders are ushering in is the idea of multiracial coalitions. It is not until the end of the book that Ifill ponders the role of other races in these new developments.

We know that race pride helped fuel black turnout, but less explored is the question of how the white voters who control the franchise went from resistance to acceptance in a single generation. How were Latino voters moved to speak so forcefully on Election day, delivering two thirds of their votes to Obama? (p. 237)

Asian Americans also voted overwhelmingly for Obama, providing him with 62% of the vote. However, this oversight in the book accurately reflects exactly how large of a change has occurred in the last forty years – something that many leaders of the new school understand. While it would have been beneficial to see some further racial analysis, particularly dealing with the perception that Obama would privilege blacks above all other races if elected, it is understandable that it is omitted. Perhaps in another ten or so years, we will have a book that accurately depicts the full racial landscape in America – as for right now, we are all just trying to keep up with all the changes.

Ifill’s work is a good starting point for racial discussions in America which tend to languish outside of community focused discussions. Often, people are communicating across a gulf of understanding, without shared reference points to guide the way. The Breakthrough provides a thorough accounting of black political upheaval in the last 40 years and delves into some very unpleasant realities.

The Breakthrough’s conclusion is forward thinking, and in line with the aims of the post-civil rights generation when she writes:

[T]here is little question that we in this country may be reaching the end of the “firsts.” Perhaps breakthroughs are on the verge of becoming enough of a part of the national political landscape that at some point we will cease noticing them all together. (p. 246)