I learned how to cover race riots by telephone. They didn't pay me enough at my first newspaper job to venture onto the grounds of South Boston High School when bricks were being thrown. Instead, I would telephone the headmaster and ask him to relay to me the number of broken chairs in the cafeteria each day. A white colleague dispatched to the scene would fill in the details for me.
I've spent 30 years in journalism since then chronicling stories like that – places where truth and consequences collide, rub up against each other, and shift history's course. None of that prepared me for 2008 and the astonishing rise of Barack Obama.
It is true that he accomplished what no black man had before, but it went farther than that. Simply as an exercise in efficient politics, Obama '08 rewrote the textbook. His accomplishment was historic and one that transformed how race and politics intersect in our society. Obama is the leading edge of this change, but his success is merely the ripple in a pond that grows deeper every day.
"When people do something that they've never done before, I think that makes it easier to do it a second time," David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's chief strategist, told me just days after Obama won. "So when people vote for an African American candidate, I think itmakes it easier for the next African American candidate."
The next African American candidates – and a fair share of those already in office, subscribe to a formula driven as much by demographics as destiny. When population shifts – brought about by fair housing laws, affirmative action and landmark school desegregation rulings – political power is challenged as well. It happened in Boston, New York, Chicago and every other big city reshaped by an influx of European immigration. It is happening again now in Miami and Los Angeles, in suburban Virginia and in rural North Carolina, where the political calculus is being reshaped by Latino immigrants. With African Americans, freighted with the legacy of slavery and the pushback from whites who refuse to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors, the shift has been more scattered and sporadic – yet no less profound.
Boston was awash in the sort racial drama that foreshadows dramatic change when I began my journalism career at the Boston Herald American in 1977.
While I was attending Simmons College, the Federal courts demanded that the city's very political school committee fix the city's racially unbalanced education system.
The solution, imposed by U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity in 1974, seemed pretty straightforward. Send white children to black neighborhoods and black children to white neighborhoods. It came to be known as forced busing.
The idea was to impose balance where it no longer existed. The optimistic reasoning was that the resources -- teachers, textbooks, shared experience -- would follow. But history now shows us busing – moving 20,000 students to and fro in search of quality education was, in fact, a far more radical notion than originally envisioned. It struck at the heart of neighborhood and racial identity in cities all over the nation, most memorably so in Irish South Boston and black Roxbury.
White residents of insular neighborhoods railed – sometimes violently – against the incursion into their neighborhood schools. Black residents in Roxbury railed right back.
As I walked to my college classes in Boston's Fenway neighborhood that fall, I saw the result with my own eyes -- Boston's finest in riot gear stepping in to prevent clashes at English High School. It was a scene that played out again and again all over the city, all over the country.
"The white kids don't like black kids and black kids don't like white kids," one white student said after one of the melees I covered by phone. "All of it is prejudice. All I know is that no
Excerpted from The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama
by Gwen Ifill
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