Black Politicians Disagree When Race Is A Factor

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The Senate's refusal to seat Illinois Senate appointee Roland Burris has been portrayed in some Chicago political circles as a case of racism pure and simple. But for a new generation of black politicians - peers in age with the new president-elect - that kind of race-baiting is no longer the norm.


Today, Roland Burris tries again to be accepted as a U.S. senator from Illinois. He meets with leaders of the Senate, which has already turned him away once. This morning, we'll talk about the debate that was ignited because the man who was denied that seat is black. It has exposed a divide between two generations of black leaders. And we're joined now by NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: If I may ask about two Chicago politicians here, both African-American, they actually ran against each other in an election once. One is Congressman Bobby Rush, who says that denying the Senate seat to Burris is like segregation. The other is President-elect Obama, who says this is about corruption, and it's fine to keep him out of the Senate. What leads to that difference in outlook, do you think?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think for the older generation, Steve, it's identity politics. It's being a spokesman for black grievance and a conduit to white political power - I think that's the model that they are deeply enmeshed in - versus a younger generation of black politicians who are seeking a place in mainstream politics - like earlier generations of Italians or Irish who've now found themselves in mainstream American politics.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. Bobby - you're saying Bobby Rush says, you know, I have to stand up for other African-Americans because we have to stick together, and President-elect Obama is thinking in a different and broader way.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. So you get the former Black Panther, Bobby Rush, saying that keeping Burris out of the Senate is like old segregation, and making the argument that, you know, he's essentially blocking the schoolhouse door, but it's the Senate door this time. And if you think about for a second, Steve, the Illinois secretary of state is black, President Obama's black, they both oppose Burris being seated. So that argument isn't getting traction. Instead, it's the legal argument that is right now being the best - best that Roland Burris can do to try to get his seat in the Senate.

INSKEEP: Hard to miss that Rush and Obama are different in age. Is there a split, of sorts, between older and younger black leaders in the way they view the world?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I don't think there's any question. You stop and you think about the fact that if we were talking a year ago, you'd realize that most of the Congressional Black Caucus was supporting Hillary Clinton. They knew her. I mean, this is the key thing, they - you stop and think about it, even the older black politicians don't know this younger generation. They don't know that they'll return their phone calls. They don't know that they will make deals. They don't know that they will back them when it comes to funding programs or supporting their campaigns down the line. These guys didn't come up through the pulpit. They didn't come up through the civil rights movement. Remember, Barack Obama wasn't part of that at all. He comes from a separate generation. He's Ivy League-educated. They're still coming to know those folks, so it's no surprise that they would be reluctant to throw out immediate support to the likes of Barack Obama or this younger generation.

INSKEEP: Are you saying the older generation of civil rights leaders, at least some members of that generation are still skeptical of Barack Obama, even after seeing him campaign?

WILLIAMS: Yes, sir. Well, all - Steve, the only thing that makes them not skeptical is the fact that there is such overwhelming support in the black community for Barack Obama and many of these younger black politicians. But the fact that they have no history with them tends to define them as strange, different. You know, they don't see them as one of them quite yet. So maybe that's coming down the pike. I'm - just - was yesterday talking with Artur Davis, the Congressman from Alabama, Ivy League-educated. And he told me he's thinking of running for governor of Alabama. A black man might be governor of Alabama. But he's looking for a model. He's looking at President Obama. He's looking at Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. He's not expecting support from older black politicians in the state. In fact, he said he says he imagines that they will oppose him and put him in a corner as a relative risk, and suggest that people stick with them and with the established Democratic lines of authority in the state. That's - that's what's going on in the country, that split between the generations.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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