Emory professor's book details ‘fascinating’ dynamics in election

With a Ph.D. in political science from Yale, Gillespie, 32, is an expert on the newest wave of young African-American politicians, which she identifies as the third wave of elected black leadership.

She talked recently about her research and how Georgians, specifically new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, fit into the big picture.

Here’s that interview, edited for length.

Q: How did you come to do “Whose Black Politics”?

A: In 2002 I started to go to Newark, N.J., to conduct voter-mobilization experiments for my doctoral dissertation. I wanted to see what types of voter contact actually increased voter turnout. I was working with a city councilman named Cory Booker, and he let me work on part of his campaign. I was there during the 2002 mayoral election, and I witnessed this fight between young and old politicians. Cory was 32 years old at the time; he was running against Sharpe James, who was nearly twice his age. The contest really focused on racial authenticity. Sharpe James framed the entire debate about whether Cory was “black enough” to lead the city of Newark. That was actually much more fascinating to me than the stuff I was doing about canvassing or phone-banking.

Q: That kind of framing had not come up at that point?

A: There have been races before where people talked about who was black enough to lead the city. It happened in Atlanta in the 1990s. But it was just much more stark because of the age difference between the candidates and the differences in political style that were born out of life experience.

Q: You establish a group of categories with catchy names such as Ivy League Upstarts and the Chips off the Old Blocks. Why?

A: This book comes out of a class I teach at Emory called “New Black Political Leadership.”

In order to explain young black political leadership for my students, I needed to come up with ways for it to become memorable. I actually caught a little bit of flak for [the categories]. There are some people who thought that’s too cute or too journalistic. But I found that my students actually remember the stuff when I can attach a name to it.

Q: You write a lot about a campaign strategy called deracialization. Can you explain that?

A: The second wave of black politics is largely characterized by deracialization. I think that’s what journalists mean when they try to say “post-racial” today. But this tactic was first proposed in the 1970s, in response to the Republican Party’s Southern strategy. The argument was that the Republican Party had negatively tied race to the Democratic Party in a way that it was actually helping to defeat Democrats of all stripes. Race needed to be separated from Democratic politics, and civil-rights issues needed to be recast not as racial justice issues but as issues that could benefit all people. The whole point was to maintain the widest crossover appeal possible.

Q: The big example of this is Barack Obama, right?

A: Barack Obama is an example, when he challenged Bobby Rush in 2000 [for the U.S. House]. Cory Booker challenging Sharpe James in 2002. Even though they’re about the same age, (in Georgia) Denise Majette challenging Cynthia McKinney in 2002 is another; Cynthia McKinney clearly embraces the old style of politics. Right around the beginning of the last decade, there seemed to be this wave of deracialized younger, professionally educated young black politicians who were challenging more established black figures.

Q: Atlanta has had a black mayor for decades. Is Kasim Reed someone you consider part of the third wave of black leaders?

A: Yes, but he’s very different. He fits the age profile; he was born after 1960. He definitely benefitted from integration. He’s different in that he’s not an Ivy League Upstart; he fits more the profile of a Chip Off the Old Block.

One of the interesting things about Mayor Reed is that he may be the first example of somebody who wasn’t born into a political family who has strong connections to the black political establishment. I argue in the book that you don’t have to be born into a political family in order to have connections to the black political establishment; you can achieve those connections through strong and effective mentoring.

Q: Who mentored Reed?

A: Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young mentored him, and you don’t see those kinds of examples in other places. One of the things that a lot of young black politicians who don’t have connections to the political establishment complain about all the time is that they didn’t receive mentoring. That’s part of the reason why some of them challenge [older officials in elections].

Q: So how’s Reed going to different?

A: He’s going to much more comfortable with new media. He’s going to be much more forward-thinking in terms of harnassing technology for the cost benefit of the city. I also expect to see a greater reliance on outside consultants, especially in places where they need to find efficiencies. But because of that political mentoring he is going to express his support for African-American politics and for policies very differently than even some of his deracialized peers are going to be able to.

Q: Were you surprised about the way the city divided racially in the Reed-[Mary] Norwood election?

A: No. This is the first time we’ve had a real credible multi-racial election in a long time in Atlanta. And I think people hadn’t gotten used to the idea of power switching back and forth between mayors of different races in Atlanta. That’s something people are going to have to think about. It’s something I think has been taken for granted in the city, that the mayors of Atlanta are black. Well, you know what, now that’s not always going to guaranteed.

Got an idea for a Sunday Conversation subject? E-mail Tom Sabulis.

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