Hip-Hop Generation's "Independence" Is Very Obama-Like
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Keli Goff, a seasoned political operative and emerging pundit, penned a book last year, Party Crashing: How the Hip Hop Generation Declared Political Independence (Basic Books). The book made the case that not only was the emerging hip-hop demographic an increasingly influential force, but it was more independent than its parent "civil rights" generation, which gave its overwhelming loyalty to the Democrats, and particularly Bill Clinton, who some bitterly recall was dubbed "the first black president" by Toni Morrison. The point was that a new generation of black voters was in theory challenging the notion that a person's skin color should color their politics, and that the label of "black voter" should be synonymous with Democrat.
But Party Crashing was slightly before the Barack Obama phenomenon, in which instead of having a faux black president, voters can have a real one, if all goes as they hope on Tuesday. So did the Obama candidacy reinforce the notion that the black vote was even more Democrat than ever? Or is Obama really an "independent" who just happens to be a Democrat?
AlterNet sat down with Goff and pursued this question: What does the Obama phenomenon mean for the theory that the hip-hop generation is not in lockstep with the Democratic Party -- or not nearly as much as their parents where?
Don Hazen: Isn't this an extraordinary moment? Obama's overwhelming effectiveness and success, and strong possibilities of getting elected, weren't expected even a year ago. What has happened?
Keli Goff: The main thing that happened is that the political establishment and media completely underestimated (or as President Bush might say, "misunderestimated") the strength of some key constituencies that Barack Obama did not (underestimate) -- namely younger voters as well as black voters. I sometimes joke that I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Obama first confided to his advisers that he believed he had a viable path to the White House -- and that path was on the shoulders of younger voters and black voters. My guess is that some of his advisers either laughed or told Michelle he needed a checkup. But here we are, and yes, it is extraordinary.
DH: And race, although we won't know for sure until Nov. 4, doesn't seem to be the huge issue that many expected. Are we entering a new level of consciousness about race in America?
KG: With each passing year, race -- at least race as we know it -- and all of the historical baggage and conflict it entails recedes further and further from the foreground of our political conscious. This is not to say it has disappeared completely, but it no longer defines the entire conversation the way it did when my mother and others of her generation were coming up and were struggling just to have the right to vote. For one thing, each new generation in America is more multicultural and multiracial than the previous one. Generation Y has grown up in a world in which kids with Barack Obama's unique racial and ethnic makeup really aren't so unique anymore. As I noted in Party Crashing a few years ago, the modeling industry actually began making a point of using ethnically ambiguous models (remember the successful United Colors of Benetton ad campaign?) to appeal to young consumers whose own familial and social circles and thereby worldview -- from their classmates to the music they listen to -- was ethnically diverse or ambiguous, if you will.
DH: Tell us in an overview way: What is the thesis of your book? Provide some examples of how the hip-hop generation -- and younger African American voters -- are not like their older brethren and go about politics in a different way.
KG: With Party Crashing , I really set out to explore the generational divide among older black Americans of the civil rights generation and their children and grandchildren, known collectively as the hip-hop generation; more specifically, how this generational divide is impacting the American political landscape. The key difference between the two groups is really the role that race plays in shaping their political outlook. If you grew up during the civil rights era, then race was essentially the issue you voted first, second and third when you walked into the voting booth. It had to be, or quite frankly, you may not have the chance to vote again, and that type of thinking was not being dramatic, but being a realist. Today race may still color your outlook, but it is now one issue among many you may factor in when stepping into the voting booth. Ultimately deciding whether to vote for -- or against -- someone who does not support affirmative action at public universities is still a very different choice to make than whether to vote for someone who doesn't believe you should be allowed to attend a public school at all. As a result, younger black Americans in general don't feel the type of inherent connection to the Democratic Party that older black Americans have. According to our survey for the book, 35 percent of younger black Americans ages 18 to 24 are registered Independents.
DH: How has Obama's nomination and success running against McCain supported or challenged your earlier thesis?
KG: Well, I have a chapter in the book titled "The Rise of Generation Obama," which some people thought was giving Obama far too much weight or credit at the time that I was writing. What a difference a year makes! The premise of that chapter was that Barack Obama had stirred a younger segment of educated black voters who no longer took orders from the elder establishment leaders of the Democratic Party and therefore had no problem providing a fundraising and volunteer base for this young, upstart candidate, even though he wasn't the establishment pick and everyone was predicting he wouldn't win. Some are predicting that if Obama wins, it could help stop the flow of younger blacks from the Democratic Party, but I don't know that that's true. If Obama wins the presidency, it will be because independent voters of all stripes helped elect him, so I don't know that many young, black independent voters would feel a newfound loyalty to the Democratic Party just because a Democratic candidate they like gets elected.
DH: In the book, you suggest that, given the fact that younger black voters are more independent, some would be more attracted to Republicans, but I don't see any evidence of that. Do you? In fact, one of the "role models" for the young black independent thinker in your book is Chris Rock, and he is now a huge Obama supporter.
KG: I think you may have misinterpreted the premise of the book's closing chapter just a bit. My thesis is not that younger black voters are fleeing to the GOP in droves -- not at all. The research does not support this. What it does support is that black voters are no longer automatic votes for Democrats, which is true. Yes, Chris Rock is supporting Barack Obama, and he supported him in the primary. Many black Americans were disappointed with some of the tactics and tone of the Clinton campaign in the closing days of the primary. Now I can't tell you who Chris Rock would have voted for had Obama not been the nominee, but considering in recent weeks Rock has ribbed the Clintons for not being vocal enough in their support for Obama, I have a hard time picturing him stumping for Clinton on the campaign trail were Hillary the nominee.
DH: Given the way the Obama campaign has evolved, are there any real pockets of black voters who don't support Obama? It seems that younger voters are even more overwhelming in support of him than the civil rights generation's support of Clinton.
KG: Sure. There is actually a group of "Hip-Hop Republicans" whose name pretty much says it all. They are young and black and conservative. Yet even among them you tend to hear pretty complimentary rhetoric about Obama; they just don't plan to vote for him. But all in all they are pretty few and far between.
DH: We all know about the most famous of the older generation of black leaders: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Skip Gates, and their female counterparts like Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee, and even Obama critic Tavis Smiley, who has had his own radio show. But aside from entertainers like Jay Z and others, who are the leaders of the hip-hop generation in terms of people around 30 or under?
It seems that the hip-hop generation's leadership hasn't quite emerged. Perhaps it is because the media still depends on the older generation for framing the issues? Is it possible that Obama, though not of the hip-hop generation, represents many of the elements of post-partisan independence and lack of predictability on some key issues that you have attributed to people under 30? Is Obama the prototypical hip-hop generation denizen?
KG: I would actually challenge the premise of the question. Part of why I titled my chapter in the book on leadership "The Search for America's White Leader" is because I was poking fun at the notion of a "black leader" as we have come to know it. I don't really understand why people seem so fixated on identifying specific leaders for my community in a way they don't for others. There's something very paternalistic about it and not always in a good way. That's one of Barack Obama's greatest strengths, I believe: that he is a leader who is black but not a black leader, per se. He seeks to lead those who wish to follow without limitations of race or ethnicity or geographic origin. But yes, there are others who have sizable constituencies as well, and as Julian Bond explained to me during our interview for the book, having a constituency denotes leadership.
DH: You laud Bill Clinton in the book with a whole chapter -- the "first black president," etc. But many African Americans felt that Clinton's behavior in the campaign smacked of racism. More recently, Clinton had Palin and McCain at his conference and praised them, to what some thought was an excessive extent. Have you revised your evaluation of Bill Clinton, like others in the community?
KG: According to my mother, Chris Rock recently said of President Clinton in an interview that as far as the president's behavior in the primary goes, "If you have to choose between pissing off your wife and a whole race of people, then you are going to choose pissing off a whole race of people."
Yes, I found some of his behavior disappointing, but probably not as disappointing as his wife did. It could be argued that he helped cost her the election, and I think that living with that sentiment for him is probably far more troubling than what I or any other pundit think of him. So other than saying I think he was a pretty good president, I have very little to add.
DH: Assuming Obama is elected, what might be the general stance of the hip-hop generation? What issues are most important to you? How might you organize? Will you be ardent supporters of Obama, accepting his wisdom and goals, or will you become more independent, as your book was establishing before Obama had his striking success?
KG: In our survey research for the book, the war in Iraq was ranked the most important issue among respondents -- however, it was followed closely by issues like education and health care. Our survey was conducted in '07, before the economic collapse, so my guess is that the responses might be a little different were we conducting the survey today. Ultimately, younger black voters are just like every other group of voters: They are not monolithic, which means first and foremost that there is no singular issue that defines all of its members -- which I think is great. The civil rights generation fought for us to have the same rights as everybody else, and the most American right of all is to think for yourself. Black Americans really got the right to vote four decades ago, but we are finally getting the chance to really vote for ourselves now.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.