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From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama

African American Political Success, 1966-2008


Dennis Nordin


Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2012

Hardcover. xi+258 p. ISBN 978-0826219770. $40.00


Reviewed by Jeffrey H. Bloodworth

Gannon University (Erie, Pennsylvania)



Barack Obama is a one-man Keynesian stimulus package for the publishing industry. From right-wing screeds and liberal hagiographies to children’s books and all points in-between, the forty-fourth president has induced scores of authors to spill seas of ink. Not surprisingly, the mad hullabaloo and rush to capitalize on the nation’s first black president has resulted in many, many bad books. Like most intellectual endeavors propelled by ulterior motives, these books fail, because authors have nothing new to say.

Dennis Nordin’s work, From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama : African American Political Success, 1966-2008, is a prime example of this phenomenon. Nordin had intended to write a work about race and contemporary politics—until Barack Obama mussed up his project [ix]. Once an African-American took the White House, the author was forced to make the president a significant figure in the book. This decision is telling. Indeed, From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama reads like a hastily-written work that also lacks direction and purpose. Ostensibly a manuscript about contemporary black political appeals to white voters, Nordin penned a work more fit for the Rachel Maddow Show than for serious scholars of US political history.

The Civil Rights revolution profoundly changed the landscape of American politics. With African Americans fully enfranchised, they voted and even won elected office. Eventually, black politicians also moved beyond the bounds of majority-minority districts and politicked for whites votes in majority-majority districts. These are the political races that concern Nordin. To him, the story of African-American political success with white voters amounts to “sealing a pact with the devil.” [1]

Nordin aims to reveal the moral and political bankruptcy of “post-racial” politicking. To him, black appeals to white voters result in little more than a racial “sell out” [1]. Therein lies the author’s self-imposed political straightjacket masquerading as a thesis: black candidates operate in a racialized context and can only win white votes via “pliancy” [1].

The author’s argument is rooted in his 1997 biography, The New Deal’s Black Congressman: A Life of Arthur Wergs Mitchell. That book detailed the career of the first African-American Democrat elected to Congress. Representing a majority white district during the Great Depression, Mitchell kowtowed to Chicago’s political machine and ignored racial issues. Using the Congressman’s career as a template for all that followed, Nordin claims that contemporary black politicians continue to bow and scrape when they appeal for white votes.

Compounding his pretension that current politics remain hopelessly mired in the 1930s, Nordin also employs the 1895 DuBois-Washington Debates to explain, “Congressional Politics since 1928.” The iconic dispute between WEB Dubois and Booker T. Washington has long served as a potent metaphor in black life. Indeed, the DuBois-Washington allegory very much describes the world Congressman Arthur Mitchell inhabited. Perhaps, the accommodation-versus-confrontation debate still retains relevance for the twenty-first century. The author, however, fails to situate this claim within the changing context of American politics and the nascent influence of African-American politicians.

Rising black political power was most apparent in American cities. During the 1970s and 1980s, African-American pols took the mayor’s office in major municipalities across the nation. To Nordin, this turnabout was essentially “meaningless” [108]. The author’s treatment of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley typifies his assessment of black political power at the local level.

The five-term mayor (1973-1993) achieved, according to Nordin, next to nothing. This claims strains all credibility. According to the author himself, Bradley reduced the number of white city employees by nearly one-fifth, approximately doubled the percentage of Latino and Asian workers and oversaw a thirty-percent increase in female city employees; all the while, the percentage of black city workers remained higher, twenty-two percent, than their proportion of LA’s overall population, eighteen percent [65]. Despite this reality, Nordin complains that since the “white” jobs did not “pass to African Americans,” somehow Bradley’s tenure failed to signify real racial progress [65].

The author devotes significant attention to the Massachusetts senator whose name graces the work’s title: Edward Brooke. In his chapter on Brooke and black politicians who sought statewide office, Nordin hopscotches aimlessly from one African-American officeholder to the next. In so doing, he fails to advance any sort of thesis. Moreover, in the twelve pages he allocates to Brooke’s career, Nordin breaks no new interpretive ground.

Nordin concludes his meandering work with a chapter on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Instead of anything insightful, he offers a standard narrative of the president’s march to the nomination and White House. He concludes this rather canned summation by claiming that Obama’s election hardly creates a “post-racial society.” [198]. This is the sum of Nordin’s plodding narrative: race continues to matter in American politics. Tell us something we didn’t already know.


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