Category Archives: Racialicious Reads

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. Continue reading