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Flashback

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From Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ “The Great Black Hope” in the November, 2004 issue of The Washington Monthly:

Four years ago, the same could have been said about Cory Booker. And so, the most compelling question about the politics of race right now may be this: Is Booker the next Barack Obama? Or is Obama the next Cory Booker? [...]

In the late 19th century, the Republican Party was operating a shameless affirmative-action program for retired Union generals from Ohio. The result was a string of mediocre presidents. In the late 20th century, Democratic Party politics created a powerful market for moderate Southern governors. The result was one middling president, Jimmy Carter, and one pretty good one, Clinton. Politics has its archetypes and its demands, and they will be heard. There’s now an emerging market for a certain kind of black president, the fulfillment of which will be both harder and, potentially, more powerful than any archetype we’ve seen before. It might be Obama, or it might be Cory Booker, or it might be someone else entirely. But chances are, somewhere in America, that person is watching Obama’s career carefully, and dreaming.

And of course what we’re seeing from Obama is that it’s hard. The sort of politician who can appeal to white voters — an Obama or a Booker — tends to run into trouble with black voters early in his career. And as Reverend Wright has made clear to all of us, a politician who threads that needle successfully can wind up haunted by his associations from back when his primary political problem was convincing black people that he was sufficiently authentic. Majority-minority districting is to blame for some of this, but it’s an intrinsic issue for black politicians as long as black and white perceptions of America remain pretty far apart.

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