Earlier this month, Rep. Jamaal Bowman walked outside of the House chamber and barked at reporters with an assignment: Ask Republicans “why the hell you won’t do anything to save America’s children.”
He was loud. He was frustrated. And he was in his element.
The scene ended in a viral confrontation over gun violence between Bowman and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. “Calm down?” he yelled at the Republican member. “Children are dying!”
It was only one of several recent confrontational moments that seemed designed to set the internet on fire. There was a robust debate on the steps of the Capitol with Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla. over the GOP’s 2024 candidates, which they reprised on CNN on Wednesday night (with clips traveling far and wide online). Earlier this month in Lower Manhattan, Bowman shouted to reporters that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. “needs to take her ass back to Washington and do something about gun violence” while countering her rally protesting Donald Trump’s indictment.
But as Bowman recounted the scene outside of the House chambers with Massie, he focused on someone else.
“Then I saw Hakeem — this is hilarious — like, walk past and kind of just bounce,” he told Semafor, referring to Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The implication: The more reserved and cautious Jeffries didn’t want anything to do with a high-octane spectacle he might have to comment on.
Bowman’s a former New York City school principal who ran as an outsider in 2020 against the local political machine (Jeffries endorsed his opponent, former House Foreign Affairs chair Eliot Engel) and unseated a longstanding incumbent. He kept a lower profile in his first term, where daily business was disrupted by the pandemic, which claimed the life of his mother, and the House was still reeling from the Capitol riots.
This year, however, he’s found his niche as an unapologetically brash, openly defiant politician who uses his platform to rally activists. Nor has he been afraid to stand out on policy: He was one of the few members to defend TikTok while it came under fire from just about every corner of politics.
In doing so, Bowman says he’s reminding Americans “Black men are not a monolith” and that there’s more ways to get out their message than President Obama’s more placid approach, which Jeffries has followed.
He illustrated the contrast by comparing hip hop artists: “Hakeem is more like Jay-Z and I guess I’m more like Busta Rhymes,” he said.
Bowman’s in-your-face persona challenges one of the biggest taboos in politics: The “angry Black man” stereotype. Black politicians often worry that a wrong move will overshadow their real grievances, even if white leaders don’t face the same constraints.
Especially among Black leaders with ambitions beyond representing a minority-majority district, politicians tend to follow the footsteps of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over Malcolm X. The comic duo Key and Peele satirized the famously calm and deliberate Barack Obama with an “anger translator” who said all the things that a Black president palatable to white voters could never get away with saying. Keegan-Michael Key ended up performing the act live with Obama himself at the 2015 White House Correspondents Association’s dinner.
Bowman, for his part, is not worried about falling prey to the “angry Black man” stereotype.
“Nah, those days are over,” he said. “Those days are finished. One of the reasons why that video went so viral [is] because America’s never seen a Black man yelling at a white man like that.”
The political landscape has evolved in some ways. Black candidates winning in majority-white cities, states, and districts has become more common in recent years, while white Democrats have moved left on racial issues in ways that may make them more receptive to different styles.
Bowman says he favors the rabble rousing approach over the more conciliatory one favored by Jeffries because it’s sometimes needed to draw attention to issues that lawmakers would prefer to ignore.
“I’m yelling because 9-year olds were slaughtered by assault rifles,” he told Semafor. “Like, that’s why I’m yelling. I’m not yelling just to be loud.”
Bowman entered the education system on the heels of the Columbine High School massacre. And then the mass shooting at Virginia Tech happened several years later, followed by the Sandy Hook Elementary High School shooting. The year before he ran for office, 34 students within the K-12 system in his district died —17 of them by suicide.
“One of the murders happened right up the street at New Rochelle High School from the Bronx and no one was talking about it,” he said. “No elected official, no elected leader was sounding the alarm on children dying. And so that’s why I ran, because I’m like, yo, the children dying are the result of something like housing, foster care system, trauma, addiction, criminal justice, but all that connects to policy and we got policymakers silent. So when I’m yelling, it’s about that.”
The View From Al Sharpton
Al Sharpton, who last year was the subject of a documentary called “Loudmouth,” told Semafor he’s always defended a more confrontational approach as a complement to politicians with a broader base of support.
It was part of a long-running argument he had with the late David Dinkins, who was elected the first Black mayor of New York City in 1989 and served during a period of heightened racial tension.
Sharpton recalled that Dinkins would often say to him, “Al, you don’t have to be that vibrant.”
“I said, ‘Yes, I do. Because you don’t understand: The more I put down heat, the more it drives them to you to make a compromise,’” Sharpton said.
Room for Disagreement
David Axelrod, who helped plan Obama’s political path from Chicago to the White House, honed his craft working to elect Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor. He’s known for his work helping minority candidates sell their message to voters who may not be used to seeing nonwhite politicians on the ballot.
“I’ve worked with Black mayors all over the country, I’ve worked with Deval Patrick when he ran for governor of Massachusetts,” Axelrod said. “Obviously, that’s over the span of three decades so things change and evolve.”
Axelrod saw Bowman’s hallway outburst against Massie as an educator “righteously indignant about what was happening to our kids.” But he also warned that approach could diminish the message.
“The sentiment that he was expressing is one that a lot of people share, but does that get lost? Does the form overtake the content?” Axelrod said.
- The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates frequently grappled with Obama’s political persona during his presidency. Describing his appeal in his 2012 essay “Fear of a Black President,” he wrote: “Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”