Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday as the nation's first African-American president is above all a tribute to his talent for campaigning. But President Obama is also the most successful member by far of a new generation of black leaders who have sought and won white votes.
To these politicians — a group that includes Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J. — being black is a vital attribute, but not a defining, or limiting, one.
Gwen Ifill, a senior correspondent on The NewsHour and moderator of Washington Week, writes about this group of politicians in a new book called The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.
They are men with Ivy League backgrounds with "huge post-civil rights ambitions," Ifill tells NPR's Robert Siegel. And they have all challenged senior black leaders.
"These guys take on the establishment, which we usually take to mean the white establishment, but often the black establishment, too," Ifill says.
For example, when Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama ran for office against Congressional Black Caucus veteran Earl Hilliard, Davis was told by political leaders in Alabama he should step aside.
Obama, too, had complicated relationships with traditional leaders such as Jesse Jackson, says Ifill, because "they just didn't see it coming." Ifill says she believes that Jackson's well-televised tear at Obama's victory speech in Chicago was genuine — though it was debated among cynics in the black community.
"This was a man who was there at the beginning and had to be taking in this moment for what it was," she says.
On 'Black Issues'
Ifill says today's new black leaders face great expectations — and lots of questions from their own community: " 'Are you really that black? Are you really for us?' So we have to first and foremost break out of some of our little traps that we set for ourselves in this country about what race is."
She adds, "You're often questioned far more quickly from members of your own community than you are from the other communities. So all of [these new black leaders] bemoan this fact and say, 'Listen, I'm here, I'm speaking to health care disparities, I'm speaking to recidivism. These are all issues which all disproportionally affect the black communities. Let me do the job for everybody, and it will affect you, too.' "
As for whether Obama will have to cope with such huge expectations, Ifill says, "We're all waiting to see. ... This is true in every single case. ... It's got to happen as well for Barack Obama."
But Ifill cautions that the success of the new black leaders brings with it its own perils:
"It's possible that people hold less forbearance for you when you fail, if you fail," she says. "If you're the first black quarterback and you fail, people say, 'Uh, blacks can't be quarterbacks.' If you're the first black talk show host and you fail, people say, 'Uh, blacks can't host talk shows.' So it becomes a much higher platform from which to fall. And some of them will."