RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Four years ago, a young man first sought to lead a downtrodden city. Cory Booker ran for mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He ran while living in a public housing project.
CORY BOOKER: The very thought that you was on the streets, okay, out there really fighting to make real solutions, okay. And living in - make every politician live in the worst neighborhood in their city. I guarantee the city would turn around a lot quicker.
MONTAGNE: Cory Booker lost that race in 2002, but became the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. This year, he ran for mayor again. And at the age of 37, he won. This morning, Cory Booker joins our conversations on black leadership.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
We asked Newark's new mayor if he'd walk us around the shabby neighborhood where he still lives. His staff declined, saying the mayor received death threats from the local gangs. So we reached him at Newark City Hall where crime was on his mind.
BOOKER: And I came into office - in fact, I was elected on a day that there was a number of murders. I was sworn in on a day that there was a number of murders, and that's really where we're going right now - is trying to make the city safe for all its residents.
INSKEEP: Do you still living in a public housing project?
BOOKER: I am. I'm living on the top floor of Brick Towers, a public housing project in the middle of our city.
INSKEEP: Got security?
BOOKER: Now I do. I've got some - a great security task force that are giving me the safety and the comfort so that I can focus on the safety and comfort of the rest of the people in our city.
INSKEEP: And I feel like asking the same questions that we ask of people in Baghdad. Do you have electricity? Do you have water?
BOOKER: I don't have the basics. I have no hot water. I haven't had hot water since November. The heat didn't really work in the winter, so I surrounded myself with space heaters, because fortunately electricity did work. So it's a little challenging living. But, for me, what is an inconvenience to a lot of the residents that live there - it's a issue of life and death.
INSKEEP: Well, Mayor Booker, I have to ask. You're describing life in a majority black city 42 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act - 41 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Has something gone wrong in those intervening years?
BOOKER: I am who I am. And I am here because of the incredible sacrifices of freedom fighters in our nation - black, white, and everything. You know, my parents and grandparents reminded me of it. Every school I graduated from - from high school all the way to my law degree from Yale - that I would not have been able to accomplish the things I was able to accomplish would it not have been for the sacrifice of the people that came before me.
The black middle-class has expanded more than four times since the 1960s...
INSKEEP: And you're a product of that black middle-class
BOOKER: I'm most certainly a product of that black middle-class. Where we've failed, in many ways - the population of African-Americans who are living at around the poverty line - the issues have not seen that much improvement.
INSKEEP: As you know, there's been a rather sharp debate in the country in the last couple of years over why there's been that lack of progress for some parts of the African-American community. What or whom do you blame?
BOOKER: I don't think it's a time for blame. We've really got to start accepting responsibility...
INSKEEP: Well, let me rephrase, though. I mean, I think, part of the debate is identifying what the problem really is.
INSKEEP: And one line of questioning is whether it's the government's fault, if it's the fault of racism, if it's the fault of African- American individuals.
BOOKER: You know, again, I can sit here - and I spent my graduate work studying this. You know, we could all sit and talk about the historical causes for where we are. We can talk about the geopolitical causes, the massive shifts economically in our global economy. But the reality is of my question - more productively, as the mayor of New Jersey's largest city and one of the majority African-American cities - is where do we go from here?
And so I'm much more interested in finding the concrete, practical strategies. I put out a call about prisoner re-entry and how it makes no sense for us to have an economy that grows at three or four percent, and a prison industrial complex that's growing at a rapidly greater pace. That we're going to price ourselves out of our ability to contain people. We have recidivism rates in the black community of 50, 60, 70 percent, and we're not solving the problem.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that one problem that you mentioned. You've got someone who's been in and out of prison during his lifetime. Whose responsibility is it to change that? And what can you do about it?
BOOKER: Well, we all have to accept responsibility. Alternative detention programs have been shown in cities to lower recidivism rates 50 and 60 percent. Why don't we proliferate those? Because it's much cheaper to invest in the front end than on the outside. Halfway houses actually make a major dent in recidivism rates. But still, in the state of New Jersey, the majority of prisoners are coming out and straight into the streets. Why don't we have better programs that wrap around services?
INSKEEP: Does black political culture have to change?
BOOKER: Absolutely. Black political culture has been involving since the days of the Booker T. Washington/W.B. Du Bois debates. I represent the next generation - in many ways - of black leadership that owes everything that we are to the generation of black political and social leadership before us.
But it's incumbent upon us to do what my generation is best for - the hip-hop generation. We're innovators. We're dynamic. We're trying to build upon and increase what the status quo is. So the folks in my generation of political leaders, we owe to the ones that came before us to change the culture, to adapt, to evolve, to re-examine. That's what we've been doing in the black community for generations in this nation. And that's what we're going to continue to do as we go forward.
INSKEEP: Are African-Americans focusing too much - as some thinkers in this series have suggested - on racism?
BOOKER: I think you can't ignore racism. And people who try to do it will undermine their ability to deal with the problems. We have to be an honest nation and be candid. There are real racial realities that we have to be honest and talk about, but we cannot let people use it as a way to divide us. It must be used in a way that unifies us around common principles.
The Civil Rights Movement was not a black movement. It wasn't a movement for black empowerment, simply. It was a movement for American empowerment, and that's what we have to focus on.
INSKEEP: Should African-Americans - in your view - continue to vote 85, sometimes even 95 percent Democrat?
BOOKER: You know, I'm a Democrat. But let me say something really radical. I don't think it's helpful when one party feels it could take for granted a base of people. And I think that the diversity in blacks electorally is actually going to produce good results for our nation as a whole. So I'm hoping that African-Americans will always - and continue to vote in what's in their best interest.
Good ideas come from both sides of the aisle. It serves nothing at all to vilify somebody because of their political party. The reality is that we are all unified in this American story, and I'm tired of the divisiveness of our country. And I think it undermines not only the African-Americans in our nation, but it undermines everyone. And I will forever be more loyal to the citizenry of my city than I am to any political party.
INSKEEP: Mayor Cory Booker spoke with us on the line from City Hall in Newark, New Jersey, which he has occupied since July. The mayor says he is so committed to the city that he has even gotten rid of his television set.
BOOKER: I had to make sacrifices, and my addiction to science fiction was not helping my ability to get things done in my job.
INSKEEP: Is there any science fiction tale that you are reminded of as you begin your new job?
BOOKER: You know, I'm a Trekkie. And the reason why I like Star Trek is because it's such a bold, optimistic view of our future.
INSKEEP: Well, good luck on your four-year mission.
BOOKER: Thank you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOOKER: Thank you. Hopefully, it will take this city where no city has been before.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: We'll have more of the interview with Mayor Booker at npr.org. And our conversations on black leadership continue tomorrow with a researcher who suggests that some African-Americans feel good about doing badly.