In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the anthropologist turned storyteller Zora Neale Hurston wrote that there are years that ask questions and those that answer them.
Take 1972: an annum that asked. Better known as the year of the Watergate break-in and bungled cover-up that unraveled the Nixon Administration, 1972 was also the year that nearly 10,000 Black Americans—elected officials, policy wonks, community organizers, and ordinary citizens—convened in Gary, Ind., for what was dubbed the National Black Convention. Among the central questions before the group in Gary: Should Black voters remain loyal to the Democratic Party and try to wrest from it more influence, or should they break away and form their own political alliance?
Fifty years later, in the final weeks of 2022, one data point suggested the remain-and-influence strategy had its merits: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, was elected the first Black House Minority Leader, making him the first Black person to lead a major party’s caucus in either chamber of Congress.
“Hakeem, in some ways, is an heir of all of that,” says historian Komozi Woodard, author of Want to Start a Revolution?, speaking of the Gary meeting and what followed, especially the movement of grassroots Black activists into electoral politics in places like Jeffries’ hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y..
As the new Congress begins its work on Tuesday, he will take up a key role in everything from setting caucus priorities to making committee assignments. Had Democrats won just a few more seats in the midterms, Jeffries might have been elected the first Black Speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency and one of the most influential roles in American politics—a position it seems he is likely to pursue should Democrats gain a majority in the next election.
So it is perhaps reasonable to assume that 2023 will prove to be the year of yet another question: What, precisely, does it mean to be a “first”?
Americans will no doubt hear Tuesday lots of talk about Jeffries’ relatively rapid rise during his decade in Congress, an institution that Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says is one in which seniority typically dominates. But Jeffries’ rise, Overton tells me, comes as no surprise to those who have been watching the man some like to call the Brooklyn Obama. Jeffries, 52, comes from socially and politically engaged people, and was a feature of the New York civil-rights scene during his career as a corporate lawyer. He brings a GenXer’s ability to walk in many worlds, physical and digital, and, having come of age during some of the most difficult decades in America’s major cities, he is part of what Woodard describes as the hip-hop generation—a group skilled at making a way out of no way.
It’s also likely that people will speak of Jeffries’ assent as a testament to the power of ability and drive in modern America, and opine about the country’s progress in breaking down racial boundaries. But there are as many reasons to celebrate the Jeffries breakthrough as there are reasons to consider the complex truth about what his personal success may produce. Fifteen years after President Barack Obama broke what was considered the ultimate political barrier, and 51 years after that gathering in Gary, America should know better than to assume that changes in the face of leadership automatically produce real political change too.
In fact, research and political experience tell us that people who are the “firsts” get there precisely because of their facility for what their supporters call consensus building and their detractors are more likely to describe as accommodation. Others more rigid in their ideas about policy and process risk offending those who like things the way they are. Boundary-breaking leaders are most often installed in times of crisis, making leadership even more challenging and success at least a little less likely. And there remains the simple fact that just because a barrier has been broken, doesn’t mean that everyone is happy about it.
There are, of course, significant differences between Obama and Jeffries—and their political stories, the moments that brought them to power, and the roles they have held—as well as ways that the two men are, in fact, similar. Obama was elected after the global economy nearly collapsed. By his second term, he was met with public foot-stomping from the left about his alleged failure to move progressive dream policies through a Republican-controlled Congress. (Which is not to say Obama didn’t manage to accomplish anything—Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton, cites the Affordable Care Act as a once-in-a-generation change.) On the right, he was constantly confronted with a strain of racial paranoia that painted his very presence as a threat to the proverbial American way.
Jeffries too is a product of crisis: His rise was long-planned but ended up coming about after nearly three years of pandemic, amid rising levels of political violence and extremism, including the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Like President Obama, the image of Hakeem Jeffries, leader, could represent to some that they are losing what they think is their country—as opposed to our, in the collective sense, country,” says Overton, who is also a professor at George Washington University’s Law School. Look out, he and several other people I spoke with in December say, for the ways this alone will create license for Jeffries detractors to develop false claims about what the era of his leadership may bring, including attempts to recast Jeffries as a threat, an outsider, an other with secret aims. It’s worth noting that, like Obama, Jeffries is a Christian and Black American with an Arabic name. “He could be racialized and demonized by some on the far right to stoke their base,” Overton says, “especially if Leader Jeffries becomes Speaker Jeffries in a couple of years.”
There’s almost no place in America that any of us can travel without the nation’s racial baggage coming along. Inside that baggage is the persistent idea, says Cornell Belcher, a pollster and political strategist who worked for Obama during both terms and wrote the book A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis, that Black Americans will, if given any degree of influence, exact revenge.
“They fear we are going to look out for our group the way they looked out for theirs,” Belcher says. “And the moment that a Black candidate or elected official is racialized that way, their ability to be a national leader is diminished.”
Jeffries may well accomplish much despite the headwinds. But in this scenario, a deeper level of deliberation becomes necessary to get things done. Obama had a political path Belcher describes as “razor thin” that he could walk, and had to be “above reproach” in order to prevent the forces pushing at him from closing in. There were times where that razor-thin path meant certain topics could not be discussed. Consider the reaction to Obama’s description of the wrongful arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is Black, outside the professor’s own home. Obama’s early comments described the police officer’s actions as both unwise and connected to an experience many Black people have had: excessively harsh treatment by police. The reaction was so negative that Obama essentially took it back—though by the end of 2020, thousands more Americans had been killed by police, a disproportionate share of them were Black or Latino, and police accountability issues led to protests in many cities’ streets. Jeffries will face something similar, Belcher predicts. He’ll have to pick his moments and his language with care, and there will always be some who are inclined to insist that whatever he’s said or done or put forward is inappropriate.
But there’s also a contingent of Black elected officials, activists, organizers and policy wonks, who are prepared, after the Obama years, to speak up about efforts to stymie Black political influence, says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. That, Morial says, goes for those on the right and left alike.
The kind of politics that provoked that response to Obama’s comment about Gates, says Morial, won’t be tolerated in silence. America, always in transition, continues its journey inside and outside Jeffries’ district, which is both home to one of America’s largest concentrations of public housing and to some of the most noteworthy gentrification. Yes, policy is made by compromise, and certainly Jeffries knows that, Morial says. And his record will and should be scrutinized, even criticized like any other Congressional leader or representative. But Congress, like the entire country, is different now than it was in 2008 and in 1972.
There were 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a year before the gathering in Gary. Today it is one of Congress’s largest contingents. Among its nearly 60 members is Jeffries.
“This isn’t the destination, having a Black Democratic Leader,” Overton says, “This could be the beginning—depending on this initial success of Hakeem Jeffries.”