ON A BLUSTERY WINTER AFTERNOON IN JANUARY 2005, I went to see Harold Ford Jr. in his congressional office to talk about his upcoming campaign for the U.S. Senate. He guessed he would need about $12 million for the campaign. In terms of actual hurdles, though, he expected to be more disadvantaged by being a Democrat than by being African American.
I was quietly, but completely, blown away.
Had the country changed that much? Was race not the biggest, most confusing totem on the American political horizon? I understood that in 2004 Barack Obama had been elected to the Senate. I understood about the New South. I was in Virginia when Doug Wilder became lieutenant governor, and I had covered the campaign when he became the first black governor elected in the nation's history. But even with the most generous benefit of the doubt, Ford was still talking about Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan was born, where Martin Luther King Jr. died, and where only two black people have ever been elected to Congress, both of them named Harold Ford.
History takes the slow boat and the long way" out. Indeed, to the extent that the South has grown increasingly hostile to Democrats for more than a generation, it was the party's positions on race and civil rights that made it so unpalatable to so many Southern whites.
Yet it was clear that Ford, a Southerner, was absolutely serious.
So how much has the country changed? This is the question of the moment as we watch the mutations in our national racial DNA triggered by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Obama, we are reminded constantly, is a singular political talent. But he is in many ways the full flowering of a strain of up-tempo, non-grievance, American-Dream-In-Color politics. His counterparts are young, Ivy League professionals, heirs to the civil-rights movement who are determined to move beyond both the mood and the methods of their forebears.
Where their predecessors went to historically black colleges and universities and often became ministers, this generation of leaders, born in the 1960s and 1970s, went to law school and began building political resumes. Ford went to Penn as an undergrad and law school at Michigan; his father studied mortuary science and went into the family's funeral-home business before going into politics.
These new leaders are not what used to be called race men. They argue, somewhat convincingly, that they don't need to concern themselves primarily with the uplift of their race. They appeal to black voters, to be sure, but to white ones as well. They talk about income inequality, not black unemployment. They rail against inadequate educational opportunities, not the endemic poverty in black neighborhoods that results. They attack globalization and outsourcing, not necessarily the loss of high-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs that built and sustained large working- and middle-class black communities after World War II.
And they don't want to be just mayors or congressmen from majority-black districts. They want to be governors, senators, and presidents. They look like Ford, Obama, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. They resemble Anthony Brown, the African American lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Artur Davis, a congressman from Alabama, both of whom, like Obama, graduated from Harvard Law School. They look like the Rhodes Scholar mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, who is often accused of not being black enough, and like Adrian Fenty, the new mayor of Washington, D.C., who appointed the first nonblack public-schools chancellor in 40 years. They are mostly Democrats, but they also include a handful of Republicans--Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee for the Senate in 2006, and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts--who as a matter of ideology have been preaching that the old racial calculus ought to be a less prominent feature in our politics and our lives. …