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General News    H3'ed 9/6/11

The Racial Ways of Barack Obama

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A Review of the book "The Persistence of the Color line," by Randall Kennedy

Summary of the book

The intro and first chapter celebrate Obama's (BHO) historic election and sets up the predicate for the rest of the book: understanding that BHO's job from the outset was not as Shelby Steels had claimed, that of assuaging two hundred years of white guilt, but one of convincing white America that "it was safe to put him, a non-threatening black man, in the Oval Office."  

Obama, forever the "professional politician" proceeded with a calculated pragmatism that reflected both a deference and a sensitivity to, as well as a keen intuitive feel for, America's racist society and its politics. By repeating as often as needed his emblematic "red state-blue state mantra," (that catapulted him into national prominence), BHO was able to reframe and minimize, if not completely deracify the U.S. celebratory exceptionalist narrative: In BHO's updated version of U.S. exceptionalism, "the winning of the West," occurred without either ethnic cleansing of Native Americans or the enslavement of black Africans. BHO's views and beliefs (including religious ones) always seemed carefully calibrated and shaped to fit with views that best advanced his electoral ambitions. In short, BHO feints "liberalese" but genuflects and acts "conservatese." Although the author does not say so, it is the perfect formula for what can only be called a "post-modern Uncle Tom."

In chapter 2: "Obama Courts Black America," the author gives a complicated "on the one hand this," and "on the other hand that" set of arguments that boil down essentially to the fact that Black America "went for the BHO head fake" - bought it hook-line-and-sinker. With Blacks, led by the Oprah brigade, BHO got the best of both worlds. He came out of the election with a complete win-win in a racist society. He got complete black loyalty and 96% of their votes, without having to promise them anything. But more than this, he also got their permission for him to use them as degrading political fodder to pander to racist whites. In speeches from Atlanta to Detroit, BHO was allowed to blame Blacks not only for their own circumstances (his lack of accountability arguments) but also for many of the problems of America as a whole. Rather incredibly. mainstream blacks, racist whites, and other racist non-blacks were equally happy with Obama's formulation and these longstanding charges against black America? As he had done with the national narrative, BHO deftly used his own ambiguous racial identity to straddle the racial divide, tiptoeing along a racial tight rope that he perceived as enhancing his image in all camps.

On issues that mattered most to blacks like Affirmative Action and the unequal administration of justice, BHO remained mute or signaled a tilt towards the more conservative positions. And thus like OJ Simpson, even when he was committing a double political homicide, BHO too could do no wrong. Blacks rallied to protect him even as he was "backdooring them" in public.   Black restlessness to the fact that according to BHO "they had nothing coming" (even though Native Americans, poor whites and Latinos were constantly being wooed) was quickly quelled with the message "I am the President of all the people," and a new dose of "symbol pie." The two, have been the stock and trade of the "BHO mistreatment" of his black supporters.

Chapters 3 and 4 dealt with BHO's relationship to white America. The centerpiece of this discussion is the author's careful parsing of the BHO Philadelphia speech on race, which, although it was brought about over the brouhaha about Rev. Wright, the author concludes is a work of art in political evasiveness and subliminal signaling to the racist element in the American body politic. The speech is framed in the passive voice which obliterates America's brutal past by shielding those who engaged in racial cleansing and genocide, slavery; segregation; those who have perpetuated racial exploitation and subordination all the way into the present curiously have no return addresses?

Bad things just happened to black people and no one is responsible. There is segregation and slavery but no enslavers or segregationists? Racial oppression is presented in BHO's Philadelphia narrative as a curious force of nature without human agency: Blacks are acted upon but no known individuals are doing the acting?   This speech, under the impression of dealing with the issue of race, is in disguise just another carefully wrapped BHO's gift to the racists.   It was, in addition to quieting the brouhaha over his mentor, spiritual advisor and ex-minister and friend, Rev Wright, was also in part BHO's answer to the Tea Party's calling him "a commie who pals around with terrorists," and Joe Wilson's out burst on the floor of the Congress calling him a liar.

The other part was to signal and set the stage for a string of preemptive capitulations to all of the Republicans bad proposals without a fight, where he then publicly admonished his base, calling them "professional liberals" and "black fathers who abandon their responsibilities." Again he did this only to subtly curry favor with those who arguably will vote against him in the next election in any case. In short, the Philadelphia speech instead of clarifying the issue of race, actually allowed BHO the space he needed to continue "playing the race card" hard against those who voted for him in record percentages in order to curry favor with those who probably will vote against him.

In chapters 6, 7, and 8, the author gives us a tutorial on American history from the black point of view. He uses his father's experience in the aftermath of WW-II and the Sotomayor selection to the Supreme Court as the platform to vent about why even with Obama's election, there is still so little progress in race relations in the U.S. Again, throughout, BHO comes up tiptoeing around all the sensitive issues, constantly leaning right while feinting left.

Summary Analysis.

Professor Kennedy is a highly regarded harvard law Professor, a subtle thinker, an excellent researcher, a careful reader and interpreter of U.S. history, and a lawyerly precise writer. However, I finished the book thinking that by speaking only about the black condition, and not about those who benefit from the persistence of the color line - racist whites and non-black others, he too had inadvertently cast his overall narrative in the passive voice: His narrative thus has not touched the issue of the persistence of the color line at all?

The addresses of today's perpetrators is still missing in action in this narrative? Race is seen only through the eyes of the black past, as something that remains in the past, a product of foaming at the mouth racists of Alabama and Mississippi. Yet, while those "good old boys" have long left the stage, racism persists?   Not only is racism alive and well in today's multicultural America, but most of it is not now being perpetrated exclusively by rabid racist whites, but also by passive-aggressive whites all across the political spectrum; and as quiet as it is being kept, also by wannabe non-whites, who arguably are at least as racist as the old Southern rabid racists used to be?

This emerging new phenomenon slides under the radar too, as we find Latinos, and Asians, while hiding behind the civil rights rhetoric are in practice, as racist towards blacks as the "good old boys of Alabama" used to be? It is time to discard the old "Old Black Joe" formula of the black narrative and introduce the true source of the persistence of racism, continued protection of the suite of white privileges that not only whites are heavily invested in but now also, other non-blacks in America. Together they form a corridor a veritable phalanx that shields any open discussions about how heavily whites and their racist cohorts are invested in maintaining the racist status quo.  

The author thus is guilty of the same charges he makes against BHO? If the color line persists, surely it is well past the time to bring directly into the discussion those who benefit from it most directly and who apparently are still unwilling to be inconvenience by full equality, giving up their privileges, and enforcing the laws that were enacted to underwrite and ensure full equality. However skillful it has been done, here we get yet another rehearsal of the sordid black condition with the addresses of the perpetrators still missing in action, only this time with a half black man at the helm.   Five stars



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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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