Obama: Gifted, Black and Boxed In
Randall Kennedy's book is the best examination yet of Obama's racial dilemma, says this reviewer.
In the introduction to The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Randall Kennedy, the noted professor of law at Harvard and racial commentator, makes the following assessment of Barack Obama's unprecedented predicament: "He is a politician seeking to lead and govern a massive, complex, dysfunctional democracy that has long suppressed the racial group with which he is affiliated." From this unassuming statement of fact and all that it entails, Kennedy, displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of race relations in the United States, constructs a gripping and persuasive case as to why we are not -- and won't be for a long time, if ever -- living in a truly postracial society.
This is not a rant. Kennedy, whose most vivid characteristic as a writer is a relentless reasonableness, engages Obama -- the lens through which he examines all aspects of our society -- on a slew of separate but ultimately related fronts, from the controversies over gay marriage and the nomination of the Supreme Court's first Latina justice to "Beergate" and the continued application of affirmative action in school admissions and hiring.
In unpacking the facts from all of the emotion and cant that have accompanied the election and government of the first African-American president, he gives us something that sadly is extremely rare in our age of highly polarized and polarizing debate: an injection of perspective and evenhandedness into the national conversation on race.
Kennedy is doggedly critical of Obama without falling into the trap of ignoring the myriad constraints with which the latter must always contend. He is dissatisfied with Obama's tendency to consistently "be more conservative than regard for public opinion requires him to be." In fact, this is perhaps his main beef with the president, and his dissatisfaction can be infectious, whether the subject is Obama's hesitancy to "attack homophobia in law" and support same-sex equality; his near-immediate backpedaling from an initial critical response to the arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (also of Harvard -- and editor-in-chief of The Root) at the hands of a white police officer and on the steps of Gates' own home; or his disingenuous decision with regard to the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor "to cloak a liberal selection with conservative rhetoric" despite the fact that he was "making an appointment in the first year of his term with a Senate controlled by a supermajority of fellow Democrats."
All of the above and more signal to Kennedy that the historic election of Barack Hussein Obama to the White House will not constitute the fundamental challenge to the status quo and wholesale transformation of race relations and national politics that critics and supporters alike anticipated it would. The president is not the second coming of the Messiah, as many of his most fervent cheerleaders -- Obamamaniacs, as Kennedy calls them -- fell into believing he was during the 2008 campaign. Nor is he the anti-Christ made flesh, as his most venomous critics on the far right have sought to make him out to be. He is simply a career politician who happens to be gifted, black and boxed in by powerful historical forces that rest largely outside of his control.