The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
336 pp. Pantheon. $26.95.
When it happened, few would have called Barack Obama’s marriage to wife Michelle much more than simple matrimony. But in retrospect, Randall Kennedy claims that Obama’s union played a critical role in helping him secure his place in the White House. By demonstrating an unwavering commitment to his race, the move won Obama invaluable support among much of the black community, allowing him to pass the “race loyalty” test, where he otherwise might have faltered. Now more than ever, Obama’s life is similarly politicized. In his book, Kennedy knows it.
“Obama-mania” may have long abated, but the racial aspects of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States are worth the examination. In The Persistence of the Color Line, Randall Kennedy delves into the ways through which race permeates opinions of and attitudes towards Barack Obama. Kennedy asks whether “white guilt,” engendered from the tragic history of African Americans in the U.S., influenced white voters to support Obama in an act of racial redemption. He questions Obama’s occasional use of “jive talk” and other informal phrases in speeches directed at predominantly black audiences. At the core of the book is Kennedy’s well-argued point that Obama walks a metaphorical tightrope – on one side falls to “too black,” the other “not black enough,” and the president balances between both to retain the approval of African Americans without letting the support of potential white voters slip.
Though laden with footnotes and endnotes, The Persistence of the Color Line is hardly reserved for the erudite few. Kennedy’s goal in publishing the book was to delve into the racial issues surrounding President Obama’s election and presidency, in an effort to predict their larger impact on the future of racial politics. To Kennedy, these unique issues are “peculiar dilemmas” with which no other president has ever had to grapple.
One of the most pertinent of these dilemmas is Obama’s own determination of his race. Though he self-identifies as “black,” Kennedy sheds light on the fact that Obama shares no biological lineage with any other African American; his father was Kenyan and his mother Caucasian. Kennedy points out that this fact made some blacks wary of Obama’s political intentions, since he has no ancestors who would have been subjected to slavery or involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Combined with his double Ivy League pedigree, sophistication and immaculate eloquence, some blacks used Obama’s heritage to cast doubt on his ability to relate to them. Of course, Kennedy also notes that some whites found strange comfort referring to Obama as “half-white,” as they acknowledged “his biological tie to whiteness.”
In his chapter entitled “Obama Courts Black America,” Kennedy further argues that Obama “made himself black enough to arouse the communal pride and support of African Americans but not ‘too black’ to be accepted by whites and others.” The tightrope phenomenon manifests itself in an interesting paradox, as it relates the reality that the aspects of Obama’s persona which alienate some blacks—his speech and impressive educational background—win him considerable support from whites who might have anticipated that his disposition fit the “angry, resentful black man” stereotype which characterizes (and often diminishes the legitimacy of) other well-known black politicians.
On Kennedy’s account, Obama faces another “peculiar dilemma” when it comes to affirmative action. Put simply, it’s a “bad issue” for him. Advocating for it alienates white voters, but denouncing it angers black voters. White voters reject the concept, while black voters seek Obama out as their vocal proponent. To address the topic, Obama must again achieve a balance, refraining from neglecting the fragile presence of his race while proposing policies that appease mainstream views.
Of course, Obama faced the same problem on almost every political issue in running for president, and met success in tackling the political field much as he would approach a discussion on affirmative action. He made his race clear in an attempt to appeal to black voters, while seeking policies that reflected the gamut of liberal thought on any number of issues. “Without his blackness, Obama could not have appealed nearly so strongly for a moment of racial redemption,” writes Kennedy.
As Kennedy notes, Obama’s place in history sits atop the monumental efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and those that came before him. However, The Persistence of the Color Line still addresses the question of whether this is enough to eradicate the color line forever. In Kennedy’s view, it’s not. As he writes, “Race still matters. The color line persists.” Nevertheless, Kennedy asserts that Obama did—and still does—exhibit masterful balance between images of “too black” and “not black enough” in a way that extends his broad appeal to people of all races. And he believes that Obama’s election has “psychologically changed America irrevocably.” Perhaps that’s enough for now.