Gwen Ifill Discusses Racism, Politics & President Obama
Arts and Culture

Backtalk with Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill thinks “mood” is too small a word to describe what it felt like to be on the National Mall during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “It was an astonishing spirit that was out there,” recalls the moderator and managing editor of PBS’ longest running public affairs show, Washington Week.

Doing double (and sometimes triple) duty, Ifill is also senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; and for the 2008 presidential election, she moderated the Biden-Palin vice presidential debate. Still, in the midst of all this, the 53-year-old New York City native managed to write a book. In The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday; $24.95), Ifill explains how leaders such as Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, among others, have taken advantage of hard-fought gains from the civil rights era. Ifill says this new politics is young, promotes public service, and embraces racial diversity. Black Enterprise turned the tables on the journalist, getting her thoughts on this fresh political energy, objectivity in the media, and how a new take on leadership is exactly what this country needs right now.

What myths do you anticipate your book will shatter about race and the political system?
What Barack Obama provided was a way in–to talk about this broader concept, which is how much the world has changed in the years since civil rights was put on the books. Back then you had to picket. You had to protest in order to get what you needed, what was legal for us. This generation comes along and that foundation is already laid. It’s not just that we got affirmative action or that we got into better schools, it’s that a couple of generations of younger folks really took those advantages and said, ‘I want to give back, not just to my people but to everybody.’

Your book discusses those from the civil rights era who doubted Obama was electable. Was the presumption that we weren’t ready for it?
I think that in any case where an Obama came along or any of these other breakthrough leaders that I write about, they were often told, ‘Not yet.’ They knew that if they waited, they would [miss out]. You can’t wait for permission to take leadership. And neither did Martin Luther King or Joe Riley.

Social issues seem to be the main ideas these leaders are pushing to the forefront.
All of these breakthrough politicians have discovered that if you find the thing that’s common: healthcare, joblessness, things that people share in common and say, ‘Let’s fix that,’ you will disproportionately affect black people, because we suffer more. Rather than making it a big thing and saying, ‘Lets’ save the black people,’ they say, ‘Let’s save the people.’

Why do you think this approach is more effective?

The truth is a lot of Americans, black and white, don’t want to be spoken for anymore. They don’t want self-anointed leaders to speak for them. They have lots of layers of complicated ideas and it’s not  about race, especially in a time of economic crisis.

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