Obama: Gifted, Black and Boxed In

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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.

Kennedy is acutely aware of the damned-if-he-does/damned-if-he-doesn't nature of Obama's circumstance. While conceding that out-and-out white racism is no longer socially acceptable — indeed, the once prevalent idea that race alone is sufficient grounds upon which to disqualify an otherwise qualified candidate from taking office has demonstrably been tossed to the dustbins of history — he presses the point that the president is nonetheless weighted down by the "burden of his race." This is something, he argues, that the majority of blacks understand intuitively:

Obama takes care to advance the racial integration of the American narrative in ways that are acceptable to whites — or at least to a sufficient number to maintain a winning coalition. Moreover, he goes out of his way to avoid pushing what many might see as a "black" agenda. Most African Americans, however, do not hold this against him … They view a race-transcending performance on Obama's part as a great boon to black America — a living lesson in the ability of blacks to exercise authority on behalf of the whole and without racial favoritism … In return for their support, most blacks insist only that Obama continue to identify as black, comport himself with dignity, and refrain from engaging in racial treason. [Emphasis is mine.]


Obama has never put forth a black agenda, or an agenda specifically geared to addressing problems that predominantly or disproportionately affect blacks. He can't, and the truth is, he doesn't need to. "Blacks are so used to being neglected, if not mistreated," Kennedy writes, "that they often tend to exaggerate the virtues of authorities that treat them with even a modicum of respect." After all, even Richard Nixon's secretary of labor called for special measures targeted at reducing black unemployment.

So what, then, in the absence of policies and in light of all that continues to be wrong with this country's relationship to race, might be the ultimate value of the Obama presidency as it relates to the color line? For Kennedy the answer is simple: "[G]iven the tragic cast of American race relations, a popular recognition of African-American inclusion, legitimacy, and competence in the White House is a substantial step forward."


"Race still matters!" Kennedy proclaims. It is hard to read this book and not come to the same conclusion. The ultimate value of The Persistence of the Color Line, however, will be found less in its polemical merits, which are considerable, than in its documentary aspect. This is the most thorough examination of race in the Obama era to date. And if, come 2012, Barack Obama is driven from office in a wave of conservative backlash, Kennedy's analysis illustrates many of the reasons why that defeat might come to pass.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of the memoir Losing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man's Escape From the Crowd.