Gwen Ifill’s ‘The Breakthrough’

A look at the much-anticipated book on black political leaders in the Obama generation.

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“Unity is the great need of the hour,” he told the worshipers. “It is the great need of this hour as well. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.” 

Then Obama slipped into what would become a running theme when he addressed black audiences: spreading the blame around. “All of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays—on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system,” he said. “And yet, if we are honest with our­selves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.” 

This was classic Obama. When given the chance to talk about race in the ways most expected to hear, he resisted. Race was worth talk­ing about, he thought, but only in the context of broader issues. You would never catch this black man with his fist in the air.

 

“The men and women who gathered there could’ve heard many things,” he said, referring to the March on Washington. “They could’ve heard words of anger and discord. They could’ve been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead—people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.”  

This too was classic Obama. He did not deny his race, but he gen­erally didn’t bring it up either. You had to look in the pages of his ac­claimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father, to learn about his admiration for Malcolm X and his collegiate flirtation with black ac­tivism. But the book also held these words: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race,” he wrote. “But it didn’t, couldn’t end there.”

Obama and his advisers decided early that he was not going to win the presidency by playing up his race. Those who would be drawn to that aspect of his biography would vote for him in any case, they rea­soned. The toughest votes to win would come from those who might overlook or distrust him because of something he could not control— the color of his skin.  

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president of America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, an Obama pollster who is himself African American, told me after the election. “A black man can’t be president of America. However, an ex­traordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”  

So Obama was to become the world’s most famous black man not by denying his biracial identity but by embracing parts of it selectively. On the podium at the Democratic National Convention, we saw his Indonesian half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, but not his Kenyan half sister Auma Obama. And the omissions in his biography were not limited to race: There was just passing reference made to Michelle and Barack Obama’s elite educations at Princeton and Harvard and to their law degrees.  

“He appreciates and embraces his blackness,” observed Michael Eric Dyson, the Georgetown professor and author who climbed aboard the Obama presidential campaign bandwagon early. “But he doesn’t want that to exhaust his agenda, or determine what his vocational trajectory will be. What he will say, what he will do, how he will behave, how he will act.”