Ten years ago last month, I wrote a long cover story for the New York Times Magazine titled: “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The central point of the essay, which featured dozens of black leaders and provoked no shortage of debate, was that Obama’s nomination in 2008 marked a turning point for African-Americans in our public life, from which there would be no going back.
Like the Irish and Italians and Jews before them, I posited, a new generation of black leaders were no longer defined by race or confined to representing their community, but rather had taken their place in the mainstream of our politics. Race still mattered, of course — but unlike in the civil rights era, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered, or even the main thing.
I’ve been revisiting that theory lately, as the midterm elections take shape. Because when it comes to issues of race and identity in our politics now, we seem to be dealing with a paradox that’s very hard to reconcile.
On one hand, you could read the news every day (or watch the parade of silliness on cable TV, if you’re some kind of masochist) and reasonably conclude that my proposition in 2008 was laughably wishful. Most of my more liberal friends would say that we’ve tumbled backward as a society since then, and that really we hadn’t advanced nearly as far as optimists like me insisted.
If President Trump’s election didn’t unleash some new wave of racial resentment, then it certainly emboldened a stubborn segment of the populace whose view of the country had been largely discredited before he came along. It’s astounding to think that, 10 years after Obama’s historic acceptance speech in Grant Park, white nationalists are rallying in Lafayette Park in support of his successor.
We’ve got an administration that uses “welfare” as a code word like it’s still the late ’80s. We’ve got an attorney general who was once kept off the federal bench amid allegations of racism.
The president’s chief rallying cry — “Make America Great Again” — is understood by all but the willfully obtuse as an homage to a time when white Americans, and particularly white men, retained all the power in their communities.
For those on the left who have historically seen themselves as prosecuting a heroic struggle against an inherently small-minded society, the last few years have been one giant vindication.
But wait – that’s not the whole story.
Because then you look at what’s been happening in the run-up to November. Democrats in two states of the old South — Florida and Georgia — have chosen black candidates for governor for the first time. This isn’t just African-American voters overwhelming white ones in low-turnout primaries — these are candidates wielding crossover appeal that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
If you believe a series of polls, both of those candidates have at least a decent shot at winning statewide in November.
In Boston, a city long dominated by white ethnic political machines, a black city councilwoman just unseated a 10-term congressman and will become the state’s first African-American representative.
At least three black politicians — the former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — are said to be eyeing the 2020 presidential race, and any of them would instantly become credible contenders, with their race little more than a backdrop.
And though we’re talking about race, it’s worth mentioning that African-American politicians aren’t the only group ascending after decades of hovering on the periphery. With this week’s primary result in New Hampshire, the Democratic Party has now nominated 15 women for governors’ seats, blowing away all precedent.
What’s happening here is more than just a backlash against Trump’s red hats. There are plenty of white men seeking office who are just as opposed to Trump; they’re just not winning the way they used to.
So how do we explain a moment where we seem to be indulging a kind of racial nostalgia, while simultaneously bursting through old barriers?
The image that keeps coming to my mind is of riding on a train. Maybe you’ve had this experience: another train comes roaring past on the adjacent track, and you get the sensation that you’re moving backward. It’s such a powerful feeling that, in the moment, you swear it’s really happening.
But of course that’s an illusion. You’re not going backward. The other engine is just barreling along at full throttle, and you’re still moving forward at the steady clip you were before.
So it is, I think, with all the aggressive energy around Trump and his most fervent supporters. They make it appear that the country is falling behind on racial tolerance, but really we’re just staring across the tracks at a train that’s burning through the last of its fuel.
Dying ideologies don’t slink away quietly — they go out loudly, with howls of desperate protest. One year their rallying forces almost fill a park in Charlottesville. The next year, they barely fill the benches across from the White House.
After that, they just stay home and get old.
Trump’s approval rating is below 40 percent at this point — which means that, if you subtract the slice of seething white voters who have always been willing to embrace a nakedly nativist appeal, maybe 15 percent of the rest of the electorate thinks he’s doing a passable job. More than half the country does not.
Our feeling of backward momentum is illusory. The dwindling audiences at Trump’s rallies represent the last throes of an intolerant society, not anything close to its restoration.
In July, before he returned to the campaign trail here, President Obama gave a speech in South Africa to honor the life of Nelson Mandela. The speech was vintage Obama, by which I mean it was the kind of sweeping historical narrative I heard him lay out in the years before his presidency, but much too seldom while he was in office.
Obama explained our moment as a clash of two dueling American narratives that emerged from the 20th century. One, he said, is the story of civil rights and a world moving past the racial hatred that characterized colonialism and slavery.
The second narrative, rooted in technological upheaval and growing economic inequality, holds that the country grew weaker by diluting its culture and yielding to global markets. And that the only way to reverse that decline is to embrace a nationalist identity.
These two stories, Obama said, “compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world,” and our future hangs on the outcome.
I’d agree with Obama’s summation, but I don’t think I agree, even now, that the outcome is in doubt. As I’ve heard Obama himself say in the past, progress is never a straight line; history zigs and zags and sometimes breaks your heart, but it moves inexorably forward. The only question is how long it takes and the cost it exacts.
And so even now, while it may not have unfolded as neatly as it seemed in 2008, I still believe that identity is less of a defining characteristic for black candidates — or for Latinos or Muslims or women of any race, for that matter — than it’s ever been before, and will only become less significant with every succeeding generation.
Trump’s nationalist train hurtles down a parallel track, headed nowhere.