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Where Have All the Hip-Hop Politicians Gone?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, that devastating earthquake hit Haiti three years ago. The country is still trying to rebuild. We'll hear from an author who has been traveling to Haiti for years, both before and after the earthquake, and she offers some bracing observations about what has actually made a difference in the country and what hasn't. We'll talk with the author of a book called "Farewell, Fred Voodoo." That's in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama's second inauguration is just around the corner. And it might be hard to remember now, but before he ran for president - really, even before he became a U.S. senator from Illinois - Barack Obama was just one of a group of young African-American politicians who were changing the way many thought about race and politics. Some continue to have influence today: President Obama, of course, and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who's been - who has a following far beyond his state. But others have faded from public view, and we thought, as we approach the second inauguration, it might be a good time to talk more about the so-called hip-hop generation in politics.

To do that, we've called upon two experienced political scientists. Lester Spence is a frequent contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. He's a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He's written a book called "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics." Also with us, Andra Gillespie. She is a professor of political science at Emory University and author of the book, "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America."

Thank you both so much for joining us, and Happy New Year to you both.

LESTER SPENCE: Oh, thank you.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Now, I should mention that there are a number of names that people have had for this kind of group of politicians. Some people call them the breakthrough generation. Some people call them the Joshua generation.

Andra Gillespie, when you think about this group, who are you thinking about, and what is their distinguishing characteristic?

GILLESPIE: So I define this group - I call them the third wave - by being born after the civil rights movement, by and large, or being born so late into the civil rights movement that they really wouldn't remember it or would have been able to participate in it. So, by birth, they're usually born after 1960, give or take a few years. Most of the group was born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And so this was a group that got to benefit for most, if not all of their lives from integration and the post-civil rights era. And so their approach to politics is different, because it's not informed by the activist politics of the 1950s and '60s.

MARTIN: You know, Lester Spence, there was a piece in, the online publication, The Root, last month that asked: What became of the hip-hop politicians? And a number of the people cited in this piece, like Harold Ford, Jr., Kendrick Meek, Kwame Kilpatrick - who is the former mayor of Detroit who came to, you know, such a tragic end, having been, you know, convicted of lying and misusing his office and things of that sort - not a happy story, and I wonder what you make of that.

SPENCE: Well, I think, for - you know, real quick, first of all, I want to give condolences. Hanes Walton, Jr. was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and he studied black politics for all of his career, over 40 years. He wrote 20 books, 80 articles, dozens of book chapters, and neither myself nor Andra - who I believe is attending his funeral on Sunday - would be here without him. He is irreplaceable.

Now, with that said, I think one of the things that article gets right is that it does note that there are a number of people who were in office, or who people thought would attain higher office - people like Harold Ford, like Kwame Kilpatrick, like Kendrick Meek - who, for some reason, weren't able to do so. But I think what that article doesn't quite get right is it makes a set of assumptions about the desirability of their actual politics. If you look at their actual politics, what they stood for, I think you'd find that, with the exception of Jesse Jackson, Jr., most of them supported politics that were not substantively different from their white counterparts and, in some ways, were actually worse.

MARTIN: So your argument - let's just sort of clarify, here. Harold Ford, Jr. and Kendrick Meek, both from political families, both ran for Senate. They lost. They happened to lose their bids for higher office. So, Archer Davis, a former member of Congress, ran for governor. He wanted to be the first black governor of Alabama, didn't secure the Democratic nomination. So it's just, you know, normal effort to move up. It didn't work out. You know, Kwame Kilpatrick, as we said, you know, convicted of misusing his office, so that - you know, and so there was a sort of a mixed record.

Jesse Jackson, Jr., as we know, had health problems. I mean, his kind of career has just come to an end, at least for now, after some sort of medical difficulties. So what's your argument, Lester? I mean, how would you - sort of looking at this as a whole, what would you say, if you sort of think about this group as a whole?

SPENCE: Yeah. Well, so I'd make a few things - a few claims. One is that I'd emphasize that now we're talking about a generation of politicians who actually are middle age. So when we talk about the hip-hop generation, there's a tendency to think of this youth group, but they're actually not youth. They're middle age. Right? That's the first thing.

MARTIN: As is hip-hop.

SPENCE: Yeah, as is hip-hop. Right. Chuck D is eligible for AARP. Right? And that sounds kind of astounding when you think about it, but it is what it is. The second thing I'd emphasize is, again, the political content. Right? So there - it's not just that these elected officials, they came up against a glass ceiling. What they did in a number of cases is they made profound political bad - they made poor political decisions, not just in their decision to run for office, but in the political and what they politically supported.

So Harold Ford, Jr., for example, fought for tax cuts. He fought for a lot of problematic terrorist policies that Obama's supported. And he also - focusing on the hip-hop thing, I remember, even when he was running for office, he stood against Ebonics. So it's important to distinguish these individuals' records, as opposed to just simply lumping them in one category and saying that because they didn't attain the offices they wanted, this speaks to black politics in general.

MARTIN: Andra, what about this? You had a deep study of a political leader who still remains on the scene and is still considered a rising star, Cory Booker, the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He's considered to be a very strong candidate to take over a Senate seat that is considered to - that will be open, due to retirement. He was also - many people wondered whether he would run for governor of New Jersey. What about him? He stands apart from that. What do you think accounts for his success? Well, he hasn't tried to move up to the next level yet, so we still don't know. But what is your sense of this?

GILLESPIE: So, I mean, I think we have to wait and see what happens with Booker, and whether he actually chooses to run for the Senate in 2014, and if he is successful.

A couple of years ago, I edited a volume called "Whose Black Politics?" And Lester contributed to it and wrote a chapter on Kwame Kilpatrick. And one of the things that I wanted to point out was that, in our popular renderings of young black politicians, we have a particular view that's actually very narrow of the cohort in general. It's very male, and it also tends to focus on de-racialized politicians who don't have demonstratively deep ties to the old civil rights guard. So they're not the children of politicians, and they're not the children of activists who became household names.

And so, because of that, we tend to not notice the diversity within the cohort. So there are still women who are comparably aged who are still in politics today. I'm sure we'll talk about that in a second.

MARTIN: Well, give an example. Well, give us - yeah. Well, talk about it now. How about - what are some of the other names you think could broaden the picture of how we should think about this generation in politics?

GILLESPIE: So, I mean, in 2002, this was a very, very male group. But now we can look at Terri Sewell, who replaced Archer Davis in Congress. We could look at Kamala Harris, who's the attorney general of California, and I think most people would assume probably will run for governor of California at some point. There are folks who have that progressive, sort of, you know, political ambition that we can see and might move on. We have other people, like Laura Richardson - who represents Long Beach, California - in Congress, Yvette Clarke, who represents Brooklyn. There are women there. They just don't always appear to be running for statewide office or to have the same national profile.

So I think there are a couple of lessons that we can learn from this. One, we don't have to always focus on a couple. Two, I think as people take the risk of running for higher office, we should expect that some are going to win and some are going to lose. That's a natural part of life, and we shouldn't assume that every black politician is going to be successful going forward.

I agree with some of what Lester is saying in that some of the folks who have faded from the scene made some strategically bad decisions in terms of how they presented themselves. Other people were faced with other types of challenging situations. It wasn't particularly quixotic for Harold Ford or Kendrick Meek to run for the Senate. They were running for open seats. They weren't actually challenging their elders. And so while their politics were definitely neoliberal, definitely more on the moderate end of the spectrum, that might actually fit the electorates to which they were serving.

Unfortunately, Harold Ford probably didn't campaign as hard in the African-American community as, in hindsight, he should have - not that he neglected it. And he was attacked unfairly on racial grounds in an attack ad that, in my opinion, his campaign didn't really attack or counteract in a way that they should have.

MARTIN: Well, he's not the only politician not to understand a threat when it was coming and to address it appropriately. I mean, that's...


MARTIN: ...that's why some succeed and some fail. So, a final thought from you, Lester Spence. Is there a lesson that you think the next generation, the coming up generation of black politicians could draw from this generation?

SPENCE: There are two lessons. One lesson is they should take racial inequality seriously, and then the second lesson is actually for black constituents. We have to find a way to get representatives - no matter what their age, no matter what their background, no matter how they carry themselves - to be more responsive. Right? So it's not just about people who are running for office being more attuned to the way race works in this modern period, but it's about the people who could potentially elect them, also getting them to understand that these people are supposed to represent their needs. And we have to figure out ways to make them more accountable to us.

MARTIN: Andra Gillespie, a final thought from you - briefly, if you would. What lesson do you think that the up-and-coming generation of black politicians could draw from the experiences of this group?

GILLESPIE: I would tell younger black politicians - those in gen X and gen Y - to recognize that politics is a marathon. It's not a sprint. And I think we are looking at the failure of these guys in their early 40s who could have, you know, a comeback in the next five or 10 years and thinking that their careers are over. It's not. And, for those who are in their 20s and early 30s who think that they have to get to the Senate by age 35 or 37 and be president by 45, you know, I would encourage them to take a longer view. That will actually help them to craft platforms that are actually more amenable to the needs of the African-American community. It will actually probably prevent them from antagonizing some of their elders.

MARTIN: Andra Gillespie is a professor of political science at Emory University and author of the book, "The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America." She joined us from the studios at Emory. Lester Spence is a frequent contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. He's a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and he's author of "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop in Black Politics." He joined us from Baltimore.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

SPENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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