Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black Power

Now that Obama is president, some of his friends are in a position to exert influence at the highest levels of American society.

For more than a decade, Mr. Obama has cultivated ties with a growing circle of black power brokers who are poised – and eager – to wield greater national influence. Some of these insiders stand to gain new status in an Obama administration, and many more in law firms, big corporations and on Wall Street. They believe that their proximity to the president-elect will burnish their reputations, much in the way that white elites always have leveraged connections in business and politics.

Emphasis added to make this point: same game, new players.

Many are now eyeing Washington – for jobs and less-formal resumé-boosting roles. "These black executives see a window of opportunity for themselves," says Peniel Joseph, a black professor of political science at Brandeis University. "Obama being elected president shatters the last glass ceiling."

It is a new age. Yet some things won't change too much. People want in, to get power and influence.

Of those hoping for access and government stints, some may be disappointed. Loyalties aside, Mr. Obama, according to people familiar with his thinking, may be constrained in the number of blacks he appoints to avoid any charges of favoring African-Americans.

Constrained? It seems way early to speculate, though that is not stopping anyone from doing it. Still, look at his campaign to see how he thinks, how he operates.

Other blacks, meanwhile, complain that they have been shut out altogether. Absent from the senator's advisory circle, for instance, are the civil-rights leaders and ministers who figured prominently in the candidacies of an older generation of black politicians such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "There is no one who represents the black inner city, who is rooted in the black community," says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, an influential black Boston minister. "It's the whole black Brahmin thing: Vote for us because we're better than you."

Jealousy rears its head. Obama is of a new generation. He might not be from the ghetto, but to say he is not of the black community seems ridiculous.

Obama supporters point out that the senator himself worked as a community organizer in a black Chicago neighborhood. "There are a lot of ways other than being from the street to be tough and have wisdom," says Martin Nesbitt, a Chicago real-estate developer and close friend.

... the spotlight has shifted to a new cadre of African-Americans in their 40s and 50s. Their growing visibility is already changing the tone of Washington and creating new power matrixes. For example, Eric Holder – who helped conduct Mr. Obama's search for a vice president and is considered by people close to the campaign as a candidate for attorney general – met Mr. Obama two years ago at a Washington dinner party organized by Ann Walker Marchant. Ms. Marchant is a black former Clinton administration official who is also the niece of Mr. Jordan and a cousin of Ms. Jarrett.

Intricate ties. Again, same game, new players.

Judith Byrd, 52, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, first met Mr. Obama during his early career days, in the 1980s. Back then, he was a community organizer and she was a city official. At a meeting where he was leading local opposition to landfills, Ms. Byrd recalls "my head whipping around as he spoke because of the conviction and clarity with which he was making his case."

Not the first one to say the same thing.

In 2004 she introduced Mr. Obama to her husband, Ron Blaylock, 48, an African-American veteran of Citigroup and UBS who now runs a private-equity fund. Backing their friend's political efforts, the couple quickly ramped up their social network for fund-raising events. One gathering, held this spring, was at the Park Avenue home of a friend. The invitation list consisted of friends and clients as well as colleagues from the predominantly white, A-list nonprofit boards on which they've served: Georgetown and New York Universities, Carnegie Hall, the American Ballet Theater. The event raised $370,000. "That's our existing network," says Mr. Blaylock. "Our friends and the people we associate with every day are mixed, of all races. It's not all black."

All the same circle.

Chicago provides the oldest and closest circle of black business executives around Mr. Obama. Many have benefited from the historically strong black business community and the 1983 election of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, who appointed many African-Americans to city posts.

Interesting. No such thing seem obvious in New York.

Harvard Law School is another nexus of influence, having played a key role in expanding the African-American power base. Since it began accepting blacks in large numbers in 1968, Harvard has typically admitted 30 to 40 black law students a year, according to David Wilkins, a Harvard Law professor who has tracked the numbers. In 2000, Mr. Wilkins organized a reunion of black graduates and found there were 1,400 black alumni – more black law-school graduates than any other law school except historically black Howard University.


"Harvard Law School has always produced an influential network....Now blacks are part of that network," says Rep. Artur Davis (D., Ala.), who attended law school with Mr. Obama.

Same game, different players.

Some blacks believe that a larger ripple effect is under way – that Mr. Obama's ascendancy is affecting, for instance, things like the number of black commentators appearing on cable-TV news shows. Says Ms. Butts: "You will see changes in Washington, D.C., where people are making decisions about who is running a news bureau, who is heading up a lobbying shop," bringing in more blacks to top positions.

This election "isn't going to change everything," says Harvard's Mr. Wilkins. "But it is going to change the way people understand power. It changes the view of who could be an important person."

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