A View from Third Base?–Historian Karen Ferguson on Cory Booker and the Legacy of Racial Liberalism

In this guest blog post, Karen Ferguson, author of Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism, considers the historical legacy of racial liberalism and the political career of Senator Cory Booker

Last week, Cory Booker was sworn in as the first black Senator from New Jersey
and the first black Senator to be elected since Barack Obama won his Illinois
seat in 2004. These historic firsts can be cast as signs of national progress
toward racial justice and growing meritocracy. Yet, as Booker conceded during
the last summer’s ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the
March on Washington, he was “born on third base.”

 

Cory Booker

Cory Booker. Photo by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

With this baseball analogy, the Stanford-, Oxford-,
and Yale-educated Booker–who grew up in an overwhelmingly white New Jersey
suburb, who is friends with billionaires Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, and
Mark Zuckerberg, and who was himself co-founder of a high-tech start-up–admitted
that being a child of privilege has its privileges. This crucial factor has both
raised his national profile and dogged him throughout his tenure as Mayor of Newark,
one of the poorest and most troubled black-majority cities in the United
States. To be sure, the social and
economic gap between Booker and the majority of Newark’s electorate is nothing
unique in American politics, which is marked by growing inequality. But
Booker’s story also points more specifically to the flawed assumptions
underlying an enduring trickle-down theory of racial equality that has resulted
in the elevation and celebration of individual black elites as race redeemers
in vain hope that they can compensate for the failings of a “system” that
continues to perpetuate racial inequality. 

 

Booker’s
concurrent troubles in leading Newark and success as a political celebrity demonstrate
how the rise of elite black figures in America is not the culmination of the
fight for racial equality, as the story is often told, but is rather the
consummation of an elite white strategy begun in the late 1960s to bring
exceptional African Americans into the highest echelons of American culture and
society with few benefits for those left behind.

The
contradictions of Booker’s career can be traced back before his birth to the
years following the March on Washington and attendant Civil Rights Act, when
the focus of the black freedom struggle moved from the legislative victories against
legal segregation in the Jim Crow South to the intractable structural issues
underlying the ghettoization of the nation’s urban black communities, Newark
notable among them.

Seeking
to deflate the challenge of the black power movement, leaders of many of the
nation’s largest and most influential mid-twentieth century institutions–including
Ivy League universities, foundations like Ford and Rockefeller, and corporations
including CBS, Citibank, General Motors, and IBM–opened their doors to the “best
and brightest” African Americans.  This
strategy of elite pluralism through affirmative action has been a hallmark
legacy of the black power era in the United States, and has marked Cory
Booker’s life ever since IBM hired his parents in the early 1970s as two of its
first black executives.

The champions
of this strategy believed that black power’s challenge could be most
effectively met by focusing on expanding society’s
highest ranks to African Americans. By doing so, the nation’s liberal
establishment sought to rebut black activists’ critique that the American system
was at its root a racist one, showing that, it was in fact colorblind and meritocratic.
This program also betrayed an unsurprising belief by white elites that the
problems of black America were largely a matter of effective leadership from
the top. From inside an expanded American establishment, talented individual
black men and women were to become stewards of their race and lead it out of
the doldrums through their smarts and newfound influence and connections.

As Cory Booker’s national celebrity has shown, this top-down
reformist vision to solve the ongoing problems of racial inequality has not
lost its seductive power. However, it remains a chimera. Booker, despite attracting significant
investment to the city through his outside connections, and despite being
anointed the “superman” mayor by no less than the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, has been frustrated in his efforts to
reverse crime rates and improve school performance, let alone raise the income
levels of Newark’s predominantly poor residents. Individual black leaders, even
those as talented and well connected as Cory Booker, cannot alone change the
lot of black Americans, who remain three times more likely as whites to be poor,
among many other dismal indicators of racial inequality.

Furthermore,
the intraracial divergence of experience, opportunity, and perspective between
what Henry Louis Gates called the black “overclass” and the rest has made
representative black leadership a tricky proposition, especially when the black
community is never the only and rarely the most powerful constituency on whom elite
black leaders depend for their success. A contemporary example of this
relationship is the connection between Booker and some of today’s wealthiest
tech stars.

For
instance, in 2011 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg offered Booker $100 million to
overhaul the Newark’s public education system largely through the application
of the charter school model–high-tech philanthropists’ favorite solution to
the problem of under-funded and under-performing public schools. Mayor Booker
could not avoid skepticism and opposition–even from his urban political allies–to
turning the public schools over to the private sector with this unproven, if
widespread, educational reform.

Mark Zuckerberg is only one of Booker’s Silicon
Valley fans who invested enthusiastically in his bid for the U.S. Senate. Now
that he has won that election, Booker, who attended Stanford with some of today’s
super-rich high-tech entrepreneurs, promises to be an influential ally to the
industry in Washington, DC. As one of these Stanford stalwarts, social media
entrepreneur Gina Bianchini, put it, “he’s one of us.” With his class
background, education, and his parents’ careers in the computer industry, it
may well be that Booker will be a more effective political leader for one of
the wealthiest constituencies in the nation than he ever was to black Newark,
one of the poorest.

Karen Ferguson is Associate Professor of History and Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University.

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