May 14, 2002


A new kind of `race card' (Jonathan Alter, 5/10/02, MSNBC)
The contest pitting iron-fisted four-term incumbent Sharpe James against young Rhodes Scholar Cory Booker has attracted national attention for some very good reasons. It's age (66) versus youth (33), Montclair State versus Stanford and Yale Law, experience versus potential. More important, it's a story about the future of black politics and whether a new kind of "race card" can be successfully played by the older generation. [...]

James draws most of his campaign money from city employees and vendors; Booker's comes largely from wealthy whites in the New Jersey suburbs.

James runs a formidable political machine (that helped elect New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine in 2000) and he is a take-no-prisoners politician. Newark is full of reports of his forces intimidating anyone daring to support the challenger, who is nonetheless matching the mayor in fund-raising by tapping wealthy outsiders. The James campaign gets most of its money from city employees and vendors; Booker's comes largely from wealthy whites in the New Jersey suburbs (and New York City) who hope to place an early bet on a horse they think can go all the way to the White House.

James is an old-fashioned Democrat; Booker is more of a neo-liberal-much less predictable. His support for experimenting with vouchers for poor kids has become a cudgel in James's hands, even though polls show blacks favor the idea. Booker would clean house at city hall, which needs it (James' police chief and staff director have both been convicted). But it's not clear he knows where to find the levers of power to get things done.

Booker may not be as ambitious as James claims; if he were, he wouldn't be running for mayor of Newark but for some job--Congress?--where whites could vote for him. He perfectly expresses their hopes of a moderate, unthreatening post-racial future, where machine politics gives way to a meritocratic elite. But because so few whites actually live in Newark, this is more abstract sentiment than hard-headed political calculation. James is closer to the half of Newark residents who are black.

White folk tend to be extraordinarily clueless about black politics. It is particularly difficult for us to comprehend the racial divide within the black community, and it's a sufficiently inflammatory topic that those who do understand it don't talk about it much. So we get the situation where we defer to the NAACP as a kind of official voice for blacks, while in much of the black community it's referred to as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People, because of the belief that it is the exclusive province of the fair-skinned. But the dynamic in this Newark race is so obvious that it's gotten some play in the media, though much of it is disingenuous, merely hinting at the role of the two men's appearance as a factor in the election. As with so much of race talk in America, you end up having to read between the lines because the real issues make us all uncomfortable. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 14, 2002 7:11 AM
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