Interview: Keli Goff – Author and Political Analyst

Posted: April 10, 2008 in books, interview
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Keli Goff

Date of Interview: 04/10/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

In days gone by, politics was a game that only men were allowed to play.  But today, women have gained access to the political arena in every dimension.

One of these women is Keli Goff, who has emerged as one of Washington’s key political commentators and serves as a regular contributor to CNN, FOX News Channel and Bloomberg Radio.  Although her public arrival is several years in the making, it is quite fitting that Goff—a young, Ivy-educated, African-American female—is weathering (and dissecting) a political climate steeped with the rhetoric of change.

On February 25, 2008, Keli Goff published her first book, Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence, under the Basic Civitas imprint.  And in less than 300 pages, Goff manages to introduce America to a new generation of black voters that challenges antiquated notions of racial politics.

Upon review of Party Crashing, Keli Goff managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on race, politics and the ever-evolving news media.

Clayton Perry:Party Crashing covers a great deal of political ground, but it doesn’t come off as purely academic.  How were you able to strike that balance during the writing process?

Keli Goff: I approached this book like a detective—as someone who’s genuinely curious about the evolution of black political culture. Fortunately, I did not have to struggle with an agenda, because I was not trying to prove that a certain mode of thinking was right or wrong. I wanted to tell a story and I did not want this to be a 250-page Ann Coulter book filled with personal opinions. I wanted the final product to reveal something that I was passionate about, and that is a pretty unusual thing. You have to back it up with facts, of course, and get other people to do analysis. That is why I talked to experts and people in the public eye, like Colin Powell. Later, I added my own perspective.  Once the manuscript was complete, I read it to one of my friends. He said that my book was sort of highbrow and, at the same time, very lowbrow, which was meant as a compliment. It’s either Shakespeare or it’s Silver Gloves. A lot of people are somewhere in between. I wanted this book to embody that, because there’s an audience there. I want them to appreciate this book.

Clayton Perry: Well, that mission was accomplished.  This book is very accessible, and one does not need to be a Washington insider to follow along.  In the beginning, you open with the following quote from Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967): “When the Negro was completely an underdog, he needed white spokesmen.  Liberals played their parts in this period exceedingly well…But now that the Negro has rejected his role as an underdog, he has become more assertive in his search for identity and group solidarity; he wants to speak for himself.”  How did King’s consciousness about what was happening 40 years ago shape the content of Party Crashing?

Keli Goff: Well, when one speaks of the civil rights generation, Martin Luther King is clearly the icon. Since Party Crashing is an analysis of the relationship between the civil rights generation and the generation that followed, I thought it was really important that the first half of the book started there. The really interesting irony—and the reason why this particular quote was picked—is because the relationship between black Americans and the Democratic Party was built in large part on this heroic movement. As time progressed and the country moved away from polarizing conversations about race, my research showed black Americans moved further away from the Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party’s relationship with black voters is almost paternalistic, right? I’m here for you, I’ll take care of you, and you can count on me. But at some point, you have to grow up. You speak for yourself, and you say, “That’s great, but I am my own person with my own voice.” At a certain point, you evolve as an individual. You have the right to evolve beyond the group identity and find your voice and find your vote. So that quote, even though it was 40 years ago, really encapsulates that idea. I want to see for myself. I want to think for myself. That means I may be a Democrat or I may not, but I have a right to do what I wish to do.

Clayton Perry: Your research notes that 35% of young, black Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 identify themselves as political independents, so that certainly is an interesting progression.  In Chapter 5 (“The Search for America’s White Leader”), you note that the concept of black leadership is being redefined as well.  The news media routinely uses the term “black leader,” although the experiences and accomplishments of prominent “black leaders” are not tied exclusively to the black community.  Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey are rarely thought of in popular culture as “black leaders.”  Like you, I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone use the term “white leader,” although there are leaders that are without question white.  Amongst politicians, pundits and the media, it is understood that white Americans represent a diverse array of ideas and are not a monolithic people.  Similar consideration is hardly given to black Americans, however.

Keli Goff: I think our use of the term “black leaders” is becoming increasingly antiquated. Either black or white, leaders are always leaders, right? Leaders are people you can look up to and who get things done. I think that’s the bigger issue. It’s not if we need leaders or we need leaders who are black. As you read in the book, most of the people we surveyed, more than 80%, agree. “Black leaders” are great leaders who happen to be black. Leaders are not exclusive to black America.

Clayton Perry: Speaking of those black leaders or the leaders who just happen to be black, your commentary with Al Sharpton states that he believes that you should always “judge people on the basis of what they do.”  As a civil rights activist, Sharpton serves a distinct purpose, yet his influence with young black professionals is kind of tenuous. Is Al Sharpton’s leadership style still relevant?  And how do you contrast that with someone like Barack Obama?

Keli Goff: Some people think that Sharpton’s style is more appealing than Obama’s. But strictly in the context of black leadership, I’m sure it will always be relevant to a certain constituency. Will Sharpton be more relevant on a national stage than someone like Barack Obama?  Probably not. But that is not to say that he’s not relevant to a certain constituency. Different leadership models work for different people. Do I think he’s going to be as influential as someone whose leadership transcends beyond the strict confines of race in this country, like Barack Obama types? No, probably not if you’re basing it on numbers. But as I mentioned in the book, it takes all kinds of leaders to get certain things done.

Clayton Perry: When discussing the “black vote,” Party Crashing makes it quite evident that the only unifying tie between members of the hip hop generation is race. Once socioeconomic status is factored into the equation, political divergence occurs.  How do you think the media will respond to the injection of class into discussions of race?  What do you think the media’s future perception of the “black voter” or “the black vote” will be?

Keli Goff: The media still largely has antiquated notions, by even using such terminology as the black vote. I’ve said that on the air. Black people are not getting in a room and deciding how they’re going to vote together. Early in the Democratic nomination race, Barack Obama was trailing Hillary Clinton by 40 points in the black community, and everyone kept asking, “Is it because he’s not black enough?” That’s ridiculous. Voters consider things as individuals in determining whether they want to vote for someone, regardless of their skin color. I think the media is reluctant to recognize that evolution – you know, black people thinking differently for a variety of reasons. Some of it is due to class. Some of it is due to education. Some of it is due to religious and cultural beliefs. The fact of the matter is black people are becoming individuals that can articulate their hopes, dreams and perspectives as well as as white Americans. The media, as well as the political establishment, really has to start catching up because they’re really behind the curve on this. It amazes me just how behind the curve they are.

Clayton Perry: What lasting impact do you want Party Crashing to have?

Keli Goff: As a black American, I feel that members of the black community have a responsibility to be concerned about issues on policy, politics and social justice because people fought and died so that we have that right. America’s founding fathers may have fought for us to have freedom in this country 200 years ago, but among black Americans, there is a sense that our founding fathers fought 40 years ago so we could vote. My focus is helping other people understand politics, so that it can be appreciated by those who feel the process is not something for them.  Each individual is but one vote, no matter if its Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates or you.  In the end, however, it is up to you whether or not you want to exercise the power.

For more information on Keli Goff, visit her official website: http://www.keligoff.com

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