Timely — as the 2012 presidential election nears — and controversial, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (Pantheon, $26.95)” is the first book by a major African-American public intellectual on racial politics and the Obama presidency.
Randall Kennedy tackles such hot-button issues as the nature of racial opposition to Obama, whether Obama has a singular responsibility to African Americans, electoral politics and cultural chauvinism, Black patriotism, the differences in Obama’s presentation of himself to Blacks and to whites, the challenges posed by the dream of a post-racial society, and the far-from-simple symbolism of Obama as a leader of the Joshua generation in a country that has elected only three Black senators and two Black governors in its entire history.
“One of the first things I wanted to do in the book was explain to people why was it such a big deal on election night when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States — why were there parties across the United States; why was there weeping? One of the things that I wanted to show was that Black Americans have been marginalized, have been snubbed, have been excluded from elected politics,” said Kennedy. “So I thought it would be useful to know about that history. In the history of the United States, there have only been two popular elected Black governors: Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Doug Wilder in Virginia. In the history of the United States there have only been three popularly elected Black senators: Obama from Illinois; Carol Mosley Brown from Illinois and again, from Massachusetts, Ed Brooke.”
Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his law degree from Yale. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He is the author of “Race, Crime, and the Law,” a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; “Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption”; “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” and “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal.” Renowned for his cool reason vis-à-vis the pitfalls and clichés of racial discourse, Kennedy gives a keen and shrewd analysis of the complex relationship between the first Black president and his African-American constituency.
“The terms under which Barack Obama won the presidency, the conditions under which he governs, and the circumstances under which he seeks re-election all display the haunting persistence of the color line,” writes Kennedy in the book’s introduction. “Many prophesied or prayed that his election heralded a post-racial America. But everything about Obama is widely, insistently, almost unavoidably interpreted through the prism of race — his appearance (light-skinned), his demeanor (not an angry Black man), his diction (‘articulate,’ ‘no Negro dialect’), his spouse (dark-skinned), the support he enjoys (anchored by Blacks), the opposition he encounters (constituted overwhelmingly by whites). For Obama himself, the consciousness of race is ever-present. It was evident on Election Night when he remarked on the miraculousness of an African American winning the White House. It was evident at the inauguration when he alluded to the fact that, during his father’s lifetime, bigotry denied Blacks service in Washington, D.C., restaurants. It was evident at the press conference of December 7, 2010, when, defending hotly disputed tax legislation, he maintained that compromise was central to America, including the Founding Fathers’ compromise with slavery — a bargain that some thoughtful observers have condemned as immoral.”
Eschewing the critical excesses of both the left and the right, Kennedy offers a gimlet-eyed view of Obama’s triumphs and travails, his strengths and weaknesses, as they pertain to the troubled history of race in America.
Being president of the United States is an extraordinarily difficult job for anyone,” said Kennedy. “Now here comes Barack Obama — two wars going on, an economic catastrophe, a politically divided country — and he’s a Black man. The purposes of level of difficulty, is very, very high to be appreciated when it comes to judging the president. As you know from my book, I’m critical of the president along a wide range of dimensions, and I don’t have a problem voicing criticism of the president. At the same time, one must understand the difficulties he faces, including the special difficulties he faces with his race. Barack Obama had to overcome his Blackness to become the president of the United States. He has had to overcome his Blackness to govern the United States, and he will have to overcome his Blackness yet again to be re-elected.”