Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

When Cory Booker emerged as a real contender for Mayor of majority Black Newark, New Jersey, some African American intellectuals sounded the alarm. Among them was Harvard's Dr. Martin Kilson, a research professor of political science who was the first African American to be granted full tenure at the college, in 1968. Dr. Kilson wrote a letter to his friend, Lee Daniels, publications director of the National Urban League, in New York, warning of Booker's close ties to the Hard Right:

Lee Daniels

National Urban League

My Dear Lee:

     I think I sent you a copy of George F. Will’s column that appeared two weeks ago in which he informs his nationwide conservative rightwing network about Cory Booker’s campaign for the mayoralty of Newark, NJ.  As soon as I read Will’s column celebrating Booker’s run against four-term Mayor Sharpe James it was clear to me that—Sharpe James’ limitations to the contrary notwithstanding—Booker was a “Black Trojan Horse” so to speak, Lee.  As you know, George Will represents the most reactionary intellectual and public policy elements among Republican conservatism in today’s America.  I mean even the conservatism of Pres. George Bush has recognized the need to ethnically and racially diversify executive offices in today’s Republican administration, something George Will and his rightwing circle—Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Richardson Scaife Foundation, etc.—have yet to publicly endorse.  The fact of the matter is that George Will and his particular circle of American conservatives (which includes my Harvard Dept. of Government rightwing colleague Professor Harvey Mansfield) would turn-back-the-clock on civil rights for African-Americans to the Plessy v. Ferguson era if they could get away with it, Lee Daniels…

     Thus any celebration of Cory Booker’s campaign in Newark by George Will and his ilk must be viewed automatically as bad news for Black people of Newark.  This was my immediate reaction to the celebratory column on Cory Booker’s campaign by George Will—my sort of knee-jerk progressive Black intellectual reaction, Lee.  Then earlier this week I received from my old friend Gregory King, who’s an administrator in the Newark Public School Administration and a very talented fellow…a copy of a recent talk Cory Booker delivered to one of George Will’s favorite Republican research centers—the Manhattan Institute.  It’s where White conservatives like Nathan Glazer, Abigail Thernstrom, William Bennett, and other conservative opponents of the mainstream Black American leadership’s civil rights agenda hang their hats, Lee. When you put together the appearance of George Will’s celebratory column on Cory Booker and Booker’s address at the Manhattan Institute, the only conclusion to make Lee is that Booker is a “Black Trojan Horse” for the Republican rightwing.

     For the first time, the Republican rightwing network—not the liberal Republican network that gave us civil rights activist oriented Black Republicans up until the Reagan Administration—now has a bear hug around a potential Black Mayor of a major city with a Black and Latino majority population.  Mind you, Lee, we on the liberal and progressive side of Black leadership have no generic bias against a Republican mayor governing our Black/Latino majority cities.  After all, we’re pluralistic and pragmatic in our approach to American politics, not ideological or xenophobic….

     But a Black Mayor aligned with and indeed controlled by the kind of conservative Republican circles that now control President Bush’s White House and represented by the Manhattan Institute, and Republican circles celebrated by Negro-phobic and feminist-phobic pundits like George Will is a very different matter altogether, Lee.  Without doubt, these kinds of Republicans aim to reverse the equalitarian-advancement and opportunity-expanding uses of modern governance to what it was before the rise of the New Deal under FDR.

     Of course, Cory Booker is perhaps the shrewdest of those we might call the New Wave Black Conservatives, Lee, for unlike the Old Guard Black Conservatives who first surfaced in the middle-‘70s and got institutionalized during Reagan/Bush Republican Administrations (e.g., Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Glenn Loury, Robert Woodson, Clarence Thomas, etc.), Booker knows the necessity of packaging his critique of the mainline Black civil rights and city leadership through his own version of liberal civil rights discourse.  Booker knows that the nasty hardline anti-civil rights conservative discourse practiced by Old Guard Black Conservatives like Shelby Steele wouldn’t let him get-off-first-base among Black voters in Newark, Lee.

     I gained some insight into Booker’s success in masking his essentially rightist Republican conservatism in populist-leaning liberal civil rights language (e.g., attacking inefficient city bureaucrats, attacking wasteful expenditures, critiquing corrupt usage of patronage practices, critiquing failures that still exist in education regimes for working-class Black kids, etc.) through a telephone call I received this week from a former Harvard graduate student….  She’s now working in New York City but keeps ties with her professional childhood buddies who live in Newark, and along with them she’s been involved in Booker’s campaign.  He’s a “new face,” so to speak, and has been skillful at appealing to the new generation of Black professionals in the Newark area in terms of his populist-tilted critique of the old guard in Newark….

     Now, there is no doubt that important limitations are associated with the Sharpe James Mayoralty, Lee, and one of those limitations relate to the fact that the new generation of professionals…have not been cultivated by Newark’s political class old guard represented by Mayor James.  As a result there’s a leadership vacuum because Black community minded activist professionals feel that they have no-place-to-go.

     Cory Booker, as a shrewd, well-educated Black professional newcomer to Newark politics (Yale Law degree), recognized this leadership vacuum….  He’s functioning as an errand boy Black politician for conservative Republican power-class penetration of governing control of Black Newark, Lee.  From where I sit, this is ominous and as many key middle-class and professional-class African-American citizens in Newark as we can reach must be alerted to what Cory Booker and his campaign stands for.

     Feel free to circulate the materials as you wish.


                                                                        Martin Kilson

Dr. Kilson retired from Harvard’s Department of Government three years ago.  He is completing 22 years of work on the two-volume study, The Making of Black Intellectuals, to be published next year.

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Other commentaries in this issue:

Newark: The First Domino? - The Hard Right Tests its National Black Strategy

Reparations Part One: The True Value of Some Land and an Animal

The Living Wage Movement: A New Beginning - Bread, Power and Civil Rights in 19 Languages

Rep. Cynthia McKinney's Statement on the Events of September 11: The need for an investigation of the events surrounding September11 is as obvious as is the need for an investigation of the Enron debacle.

Condoleezza & Geraldo, a Fine Pair: The Role Models' Burden



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Commentaries in issue number1 you may have missed are:

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right's Plan to Capture Newark NJ

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator