Street Fight

PBS Premiere: July 5, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Watching Street Fight

Ellis Cose

Newark's Native Son

Ellis Cose As I watched Marshall Curry's Street Fight, the voice of James Baldwin echoed through my mind. "I learned in New Jersey that to be Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people," wrote Baldwin, in Notes of a Native Son.

Baldwin was not writing about electoral politics, nor was he specifically writing about Newark. Still, in many ways that essay remains relevant, certainly to the situation of Cory Booker, who thought he was running against Mayor Sharpe James but discovered on the hard streets of Newark, New Jersey that he was also running against the power of prejudice -- and at the cruel mercy of reflexes, orchestrated by James, and triggered in part by the color of his skin.

Booker was not, in the manner of Baldwin, tossed out of restaurants, bars and bowling allies. His battle was not with Jim Crow and its precise rules of racial hierarchy. Instead, Booker was up against something in some ways more insidious -- or at least harder to effectively confront. How, after all, does one fight whispers suggesting a lack of racial bona fides; accusations that, skin color notwithstanding, one is not really black? Impressive as Booker's credentials might be, they could not insulate him against racial craziness. And as Curry makes clear, the 2002 Newark mayoral race was nothing if not a descent into racial madness. For long stretches, it was not so much a substantive political campaign as a battle over blackness and who best embodied it.

This is not to say it wasn't good politics. Faced with Booker's credentials and his support among the intelligentsia, the wily incumbent saw an irresistible opening for racial demagoguery. And voila, he conjured up the demons of racial distrust and tarnished the newcomers glittering resumé (brought to you courtesy of Stanford, Yale, Oxford) with racial suspicion. In so doing, he focused minds not on the future but on America's painful racial history. And he evoked resentment and anger over ancient, yet unforgotten, conflicts -- not just between blacks and whites, but between dark blacks and light blacks, educated blacks and street blacks, local blacks and outsider blacks.

That was battle, for which, Booker simply was not prepared. Bright and motivated as he was, he was no match, in the end, for the old warrior -- whose tactics were offensive but effective, and got James the fifth term in office he craved. In the tale no doubt are lessons not only about the virulence of racial memory, but also about the hubris of youth, the sagacity of age and the corrupting nature of power.

James's long tenure and ruthlessness inevitably invite comparisons with Richard J. Daley, the former mayor (some would say emperor) of Chicago, who first took office in 1955, the year Baldwin's article appeared in Harper's Magazine. That, of course, was well before Booker was born, and certainly before anyone could have predicted that Newark would one be run by a longtime black mayor who personified machine politics in Newark no less than Daley did in Chicago.

The good news, for Booker, is that time is on his side. Inevitably Sharp James's day will pass, just as the sun eventually set on Richard J. Daley. In the meantime, Curry done us the favor of reminding us that, some fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on the national scene, we on whose behalf the civil rights movement was waged still have much to overcome -- both in ourselves and in our nation.

Next: Debra Dickerson -- The revolution has finally been televised »

Ellis Cose is the author of several books, including The Envy of the World, The Rage of a Privileged Class and Bone to Pick. He is also a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine.