The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy


The full title of Randall Kennedy‘s new book, The Persistence of the Color Line. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, is, or was, published (2011) a bit too soon and needs a sequel. The incompleteness of this book is not the fault of Kennedy, a professor at the Harvard Law School, but the continuing evidence of ongoing and unrelenting racism displayed in disguise by a variety of political groups. From the Birthers to the Congress to the Tea Party, the election of a black man as President has brought out the worst of America. Kennedy’s book barely gets past the first year of a term in office that was complicated by the simple fact that Barack Obama is only half white. And half is not enough. Kennedy’s main point is that Obama is trapped in his (half) blackness and cannot act with the privileged latitude that comes automatically to any and all white Presidents.This trap of skin color has shaped and will shape this unique Presidency.

Kennedy is certainly correct that it is institutional racism that restricts Obama in what he can do, what he can say, who he can champion, what he can support, which laws he can put forward, which policies he can enact. Despite his high office, in his own country (more than in any other nation) Obama is defined by his race. Kennedy opens his book with the assertion:

The terms under which Barack Obama won the presidency, the conditions under which he governs, and the circumstances under which he seeks reelection all display the haunting persistence of the color line. Many prophesied or prayed that his election heralded a postracial America. But everything about Obama is widely, insistently, almost unavoidably interpreted through the prism of race…

Sadly, despite the hopes to the contrary that America was now “postracial,” it is now clear that America is still a racist society. If we define racism in its largest sense: that racism is a “consciousness” of race, then Americans are intensely conscious of Obama as a man of color.  For some, this “color”—black—is the color of redemption, for others, the color is a threat and a retribution. Whether positively or negatively, the entire nation is in thrall to the notion that our President is a black man.

One could wonder if the event of the election of a woman or a man of color as President had happened a few decades later, say in the 2030s, more Americans would have been more accepting and fewer people would have cared about race, but instead Barack Obama was elected in 2010. Early twenty-first century people had parents and grandparents who had (fond) memories of segregation and for many Americans, particularly those in Middle America, the sight of people of color is still rare. The reaction of these white Americans was defensive on one hand—a regression into segregationist attitudes—and offensive—an instinctive rejection of someone so unfamiliar, so dark, so cool.

One could also wonder how much the fate of Obama would have been changed if his own white family had survived: if his white grandparents had survived his election, if his white mother could have lived in the White House along with Michelle Obama’s black mother. The whiteness of Obama could have been on full display on the campaign trail, at the Inauguration, and during policy debates. But without either that white half or the black half, a “blackness” born of racism was projected onto Obama. The result was, to borrow Randall Kennedy’s term, to “blacken” Obama and to make him seem alien. However, far from being an “alien,” Obama is the mixed-race future of a more tolerant America to which we might aspire.

It is interesting to note that the President grew up in a white and multicultural society. Obama is the product of the “Melting Pot” so hated and so dreaded by the Nativists and the Know Nothings of the previous century. Obama is the future they fought to avoid. In a very typical fashion, he was raised by a single mother and her parents, all of whom were white and all of whom loved him. He grew up in multicultural Hawaii and went to white-identified schools and colleges, Occidental, Columbia and Harvard, and dated white women and had white friends. Obama chose to be “black” in the sense that he had to seek and learn about “blackness.”

But these subtleties of choice are lost on those who object to Obama solely because he is black—they don’t care about his decisions, or about the distinctions between black skin and black culture, they care only about the skin and refuse to accept him in the office of the Presidency. As Kennedy reports on the ugly fact that there are,

substantial number of Americans who simply refuse to acknowledge Obama’s political legitimacy (for example, the allegation believed by tens of millions that he was born abroad), the open contempt displayed by antagonists not only on the airwaves of right-wing talk radio but also in the inner sanctum of Congress (for example, Joe Wilson’s infamous shout of “You lie!”), and the stark polarization that characterizes the racial demographics of support for and opposition to Obama. That the opposition is overwhelmingly white is a fact that no one can reasonably dispute.

Then Kennedy asserts, “What is disputed, however, is that racial sentiment is an important ingredient in the opposition.”  This statement is interesting and what the author is working through is the fact that Obama won an overwhelming victory and that while he did not win the majority of the white vote, he won enough to carry the day. And as Kennedy points out there are “plenty of reasons” to dismiss Obama without even mentioning race—he is too liberal, he is too conservative, and so on. No president is going to please everyone all the time; but, that said, Obama will always be judged according to different standards and this judgement will always be tempered by race and those attitudes are, in and of themselves, a form of racism. The very fact that Americans were (momentarily) proud of themselves is tinged by a history of slavery and segregation. As Kennedy says,

An inflated sense of accomplishment is part of the racial predicament in which Americans find themselves. Electing a black American as president is treated as remarkable. In a sense it is—but only against the backdrop of a long-standing betrayal of democratic principles…

…That Obama has had to work so hard to make himself and his family acceptable to white America and that he has had to continue to work so persistently to overcome the perceived burden of his blackness is a sobering lesson.

I supposed we Americans hoped that we would rise to our own optimistic standards, and, as Kennedy lays out the campaign was remarkably free of racism; but there was a sizable segment of the nation that would never accept Barack Obama as President. One could argue which incident by which public official marked Obama as “black” and unacceptable was the first but barely into his first term it became clear that this was a marked man. A conservative discourse was woven, full of symbolic racist “dog whistles” to a certain group and therefore skirting overt racism. Kennedy writes that “…the prejudice has been sublimated and expressed via a code that provides a cover of plausible deniability: “He’s not one of ours”; “He’s not like us”; “He’s alien”; “He’s a Muslim”; “He’s a socialist.”

Ironically, because he is black, Kennedy argues, Obama cannot appear to favor peoples of color and therefore can do less for his “own people” who truly need the special help than a white President can freely provide. On the other hand, ironically also because he is black, Obama was in the cultural position to assist other Others, the LBGT community and the Latino community. Although Obama has, as Kennedy points out, elevated many black people to high places in his administration, he has arguably done—in a more specific way—more for the gay and lesbian community and Mexican Americans than for blacks. Thanks to Obama, gays can now serve openly in the military and Latino young people who were brought to American as children can now move freely in society without fear. The next steps, thanks to Obama, will be that gay people may be able to marry legally and that young immigrants can become citizens. This willingness to act in a moral fashion towards those who inhabit this country is real progress towards civil rights for all Americans.

Then there is the dark side of this Presidency. Because of the color of his skin, because of his race, and mostly because of the consciousness of his race, oppositional criticism of Obama falls into the zone of racism but these racist (de)evaluations are delivered in code. Once racist sentiments were uttered openly without restraint and were part of the broader culture, but as Kennedy writes, during the 1960s the language of racism in politics changed:

The Civil Rights Revolution stigmatized the open appeal to racial animus. By the late 1960s, politicians were no longer able to blatantly incite racial prejudice to their advantage at little or no political cost. To tap into racial resentments openly meant falling afoul of newly ascendant norms of racial etiquette and thus attracting punishing censure. So open appeals to racist animus gave way to implicit appeals. To avoid being branded as racist while nonetheless trafficking in racial prejudice, some politicians began to use code words to say covertly what they could no longer safely say overtly.

Today, three years into Obama’s presidency, we see these codes fully developed, unfurled and proudly flying out of the mouths political opponents. Add up these wordy criticisms, they all say the same thing: Obama is incapable of being President because he is black: “he is in over his head,” “he is incompetent,” and so on. All blame for all ills can be laid at the door of a black man, a sin eater of white transgressions. Therefore, the white men who created huge budget deficits are not at fault, the white men who started but did not finish two wars are not at fault, the white men who let Osama bin Laden slip through their fingers are not at fault and Obama’s bold deeds cannot be celebrated, because, as Mitt Romney claimed, killing Osama when the opportunity presented itself was a “no brainer.”

All of Obama’s accomplishments are discounted—he was an affirmative action admission to exclusive Ivy League schools, the stimulus did not work, he is wrong to attempt to bring peace to the Middle East, and on and on. Nothing he does is right and everything he does is wrong, not because any of these Codes are true but because the endless assertions of failure are necessary to allow whites to feel superior to this intelligent and intellectual and gifted and exceptional black man.

The idea that a black President might do a better job than a white one—even George Bush—is insupportable to racist white Americans. Kennedy goes through a number racially tinted incidents that happened before or early in the Presidency of Obama: the very real embarrassment of the Reverend Wright, the clash between the Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and a Cambridge police officer, the embarrassing incident involving Shirley Sherrod, the confirmation of Sotomayor, and so on. Kennedy does an excellent job of explaining the culture of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and gives an informative account of black patriotism or why black people love America, But the incident that opened the dam of racism in my opinion was the famous “You Lie” outburst of Joe Wilson, Congressperson from South Carolina.

The occasion was a solemn one, the health care address on a major policy proposal by Obama, marred by a loud Southern voice screaming “You Lie!” clearly something that would never happen to a white president. As Maureen Dowd wrote in the fall of 2009,

I’ve been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer — the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids — had much to do with race…But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it…Barry Obama of the post-’60s Hawaiian ’hood did not live through the major racial struggles in American history. Maybe he had a problem relating to his white basketball coach or catching a cab in New York, but he never got beaten up for being black. Now he’s at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension. Even if he and the coterie of white male advisers around him don’t choose to openly acknowledge it, this president is the ultimate civil rights figure — a black man whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a loco fringe. For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both.

Dowd concluded by quoting “Congressman Jim Clyburn, a senior member of the South Carolina delegation,”  “…had a warning for Obama advisers who want to forgive Wilson, ignore the ignorant outbursts and move on: “They’re going to have to develop ways in this White House to deal with things and not let them fester out there. Otherwise, they’ll see numbers moving in the wrong direction.”  I believe that Dowd and Clyburn were correct. The Wilson event, during a speech by Obama on health care, was a turning point. The Congressman both apologized and then raised campaign money on the strength of his racist outburst:

“This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”

Wilson was censured by the House, along party lines (the Republicans taking no responsibiltiy), but the damage was done. This outburst, which Wilson claimed to be “spontaneous,” received only a mild rebuke from his colleagues, and Obama accepted the “apology.” Wilson took advantage of the natural paralysis that happens when civilized people are confronted by outrageous barbarism. There is simply no acceptable reply to an act of such contempt. It is asking a great deal of any human being, startled by an unwarranted and untrue accusation, to react in an effective fashion. One either ignores the outburst—Obama’s approach—or to stop the proceedings—a major policy address—and politely ask the offender to leave. The Congressman should have been expelled  from the room and expelled from Congress.

But confrontation is not in the make up of Obama. He is a child of consensus and negotiation, an offspring of the postracial society. It is possible that Obama though that Wilson was having a nervous breakdown, a fit or a meltdown of some sort.  Obama wants peace and, at that time, during that summer of 2009, he probably genuinely thought that he could bring the Republicans could be brought into the fold. He did not want to offend the other side; but, by accepting what was a facile and meaningless apology from Wilson, Obama suggested to those who were watching, the people that he did not yet see as his enemies, that he was weak.

After Wilson was let off the hook, it was as if the dam had been burst and the Birthers came out of the woodwork with their absurd claims that the Presidency of Obama was a result of an impossibly complex conspiracy to place a Manchurian candidate in the White House—for what purposes it is never clear. Also out in the open were charges of Socialist, Food Stamp President, “European,” “Muslim,” and on and on, all of which were codes for un-American and also not white, because “real” Americans are white and Obama is black. Obama, in trying to govern from a “bipartisan” philosophy of “compromise,” looked foolish and naïve.

Obama, quite rightly, has taken seriously his charge as President to govern all Americans, regardless of age, race, gender or party affiliations, fairly. This position of equity is far more Presidential and fair than most Presidents. As Kennedy writes, Obama refuses to govern from a position of race and insists upon taking his positions on the basis of morality. For Obama, Kennedy states, it…

…isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s a matter of right and wrong.” Sticking to his strategy of deracialization, Obama sought as much as he could to avoid dirtying himself with the racial messiness of the dispute without alienating his African-American base. He saw deep engagement in the controversy as a losing proposition, a racial quagmire that, for many white voters, would only blacken him…”

If Obama is “blackened,” then all people of color are “colored” in even more intense hues. If it is acceptable to emit racist codes when referring to Obama, then the attacks on Others, those who are not white and male, are suddenly acceptable.  Since “You Lie!” we have heard supposedly reputable or apparently sane politicians call for an electrified fence on the border of Mexico and we have seen literally hundreds of laws passed to restrict the rights of female citizens.

We know now that on the night of the Inauguration, certain Republicans met in private (secret) and made a pact—to obstruct very single proposal Obama made, regardless of its merit, regardless of whether or not the policies were originally Republican, regardless of the impact upon the nation. This pact or agreement was nothing short of un-American and un-patriotic and unprecedented. The Republicans have held firm and have voted en masse against every proposal, every policy, every law put forward by Obama. These actions are tantamount to a conspiracy and de-value the office of the Presidency. Already there is ample evidence that the Republicans will have no respect for any President, even their own.

Randall Kennedy shows us the early straws in the wind, one racist event after another, incidents that would have passed unnoticed under a white president or events that would not have happened under a white president. Kennedy points out that in each and every case he presents, that Obama is damned if he speaks out or wades in, and he is damned if he stays silent and stays away. Kennedy is right to stress the fact that Obama is trapped in his blackness and in his innate civility and his heartfelt belief in the good will of all people. I believe that Obama had no idea of how deep and how wide and how old racism is in America. I don’t think he was prepared for the wall of refusal that he faced, and, for years, Obama has had no effective response to the visceral rejection of his presidency.

But Obama is a learner and he is a proud man. The question is what is this nation facing—a return to the blithe and blunt racism of the 1950s? or the last spewings of an ugly racist bile out of the body politic?  It this Presidency a Sacrifice Presidency, a period that forces a stained country to redeem its shameful past or is this Presidency a Reversion Presidency, the occasion upon which we revert to the old ways: the rule of the white male? We have a presidential campaign for 2012 that is entirely based upon the charge that Obama must be removed from office because he is “incompetent,” or, in other words, “black.”

News commentators continue tip-toe around this bigoted rhetoric and gingerly call this dark prejudice “tribal” and are forced to call attention to the “codes” used. And as the discourse continues to grow and become more extensive, the media are forced, more and more, to confront the constant racism that has been inspired by this Presidency. But the media–whether left or right—is merely reactive. This Presidency is not just any Presidency: it is an occasion and it is up to Obama to take advantage of his historic election. The speech on Reverend Wright and modern racism was a start, but now, three years later, this brave address is revealed as sadly insufficient for today’s dark world. Obama must take the high moral ground and be a new, another Martin Luther King and demand an end to racism at long last. Kennedy ends his interesting book on a hopeful note,

Among colored folk, his ascendancy has raised expectations of what is possible for them to achieve in a “white” Western modern democracy. It has also affected the expectations of white folk, habituating them, like nothing before, to the prospect of people of color exercising power at the highest levels. There are many who still chafe at this turnabout—witness the racial component of the denial, resentment, and anger that has fueled reaction against the Obama administration. The racial backlash, however, is eclipsed by the lesson being daily and pervasively absorbed—the message that a person of color can responsibly govern.

On the eve of an election campaign that is mired in open and belligerent racism, Randall Kennedy’s book, though now out of date, is an instructive account of how a black man teaches white men (and women) that race should be irrelevant. Only when we all learn what Obama is trying to show us, do we achieve the transcendence of a postracial society.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger 



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