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The Persistence of the Color Line
Cover of The Persistence of the Color Line
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
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Timely--as the 2012 presidential election nears--and controversial, here is the first book by a major African-American public intellectual on racial politics and the Obama presidency.

Renowned for his cool reason vis-à-vis the pitfalls and clichés of racial discourse, Randall Kennedy--Harvard professor of law and author of the New York Times best seller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word--gives us a keen and shrewd analysis of the complex relationship between the first black president and his African-American constituency.

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 postracial 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.

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.



From the Hardcover edition.

Timely--as the 2012 presidential election nears--and controversial, here is the first book by a major African-American public intellectual on racial politics and the Obama presidency.

Renowned for his cool reason vis-à-vis the pitfalls and clichés of racial discourse, Randall Kennedy--Harvard professor of law and author of the New York Times best seller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word--gives us a keen and shrewd analysis of the complex relationship between the first black president and his African-American constituency.

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 postracial 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.

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.



From the Hardcover edition.
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  • Introduction

    Introduction

    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—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.

    There was a time—now it seems long ago—when it appeared, momentarily, that America had taken a giant stride toward redemption. After all, the electorate selected Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, to be president of the United States. The hope, pride, relief, and astonishment generated by this unprecedented event provoked all sorts of optimistic declarations. People who had, in emotional self- defense, habitually eschewed patriotism, now waved American flags enthusiastically. People who had doubted that Americans would ever be able to overcome racial alienation now believed that they could. Expressions of exhilaration produced sounds and scenes reminiscent of reactions to such landmark events as the Emancipation Proclamation, Joe Louis's victory over Max Schmeling; the "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the landing on the moon. Parties erupted featuring such anthems as "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," "A Change is Gonna Come," and "We're a Winner." Strangers danced and cried with one another. People named newborns after the president-elect. On the day after the election, one of my students at Harvard Law School tearfully declared that in light of Obama's election she was reconsidering her career plans. His example, she said, made her want to be a better person. A few days later, I received a letter from an inmate of a maximum-security prison in Indiana that said the same thing.

    On Election Night one heard repeatedly echoes of Maya Angelou's statement "I never thought I'd see a black president in the White House in my lifetime." Oprah Winfrey exclaimed that Election Night was "the most electrifying" moment she had ever experienced. People commonly remarked that they felt as if they were dreaming. The day after the election, on a Listserv organized by racial- minority law professors, a distinguished black jurist remarked, "When I woke up this morning, I said to my husband, 'I had the weirdest dream last night. I dreamed that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama became president of the United States. Is that weird or what?' "

    Blacks were not the only ones feeling and expressing pent-up emotion. Responding to a column in which the black journalist Eugene Robinson explained why he wept on Election Night, numbers of white readers noted that they, too, had been moved to tears. In an open "Letter to a New Neighbor,"...

About the Author-
  • Randall 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. He lives in Massachusetts.



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 20, 2011
    Harvard law professor Kennedy (Sellout) turns his kaleidoscopic perspective on race in American life upon an engrossing and nuanced analysis of "the racial issues that have surrounded Obama's election and presidency." Kennedy balances his admiration for Obama's achievement with an awareness that the president is "a professional politician first and last." He looks at Obama's courtship of black voters and white voters as a "tightrope" requiring that he be "black enough to arouse the communal pride and support of African Americans but not ‘too black' to be accepted by whites and others." Challenging knee-jerk responses—from the left, right, center, and fringe—to media tempests (e.g., Henry Louis Gates's arrest, the Shirley Sherrod "debacle," the "attacks" on Sonia Sotomayor), he manages to look beyond race without overlooking race, placing events in a historical political context. Distinguishing "racial from nonracial criticism," he finds, surprisingly, "considerably less racial misconduct in 2008 than much of the election commentary has contended." Kennedy's own tightrope to walk is his view that Obama avoids confronting race and his recognition of "the symbolic power of example." That he does so successfully makes his account both provocative and informative, arguable and absorbing.

  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2011

    The bestselling author of Nigger (2002) explores the racial issues surrounding President Obama's election and administration.

    Obama's historic election proves that race, by itself, is no longer a disqualification for even the highest office. It does not, however, signal any kind of post-racial era, writes Kennedy (Law/Harvard Univ.; Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, 2008, etc.) in this handy compendium of the racial concerns Obama so adroitly handled during the campaign and of the race-tinged issues arising during his first two years in the White House. As a candidate, Obama quietly courted blacks by his ready self-identification, notwithstanding his mixed-race heritage, as proudly African-American, by his marriage to a strong black woman, his church affiliation and his espousal of a liberal Democratic agenda. He attracted white voters by seeming to float above racial considerations, by calmly assuring them of his good will, his patriotism and his allegiance to the nation as a whole. Kennedy teases all this out, and he provides a short electoral history of blacks, a discussion of the "race card" charges during the 2008 campaign, a commentary on the racial dimensions of the lamentable "beer summit" and the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination and a moving, first-person description of the meaning and symbolism of the inaugural. Avowedly center-left but still an "unembarrassed" admirer of the president, Kennedy retains sufficient objectivity to properly appraise the much-acclaimed "A More Perfect Union" speech, Obama's answer to the controversy aroused by the inflammatory Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the Illinois senator's longtime pastor. No, it was not a second Gettysburg Address, nor comparable to the "I Have a Dream" speech. Rather, it was the effective response of an extremely nimble politician to a campaign crisis. It contained nothing novel for anyone even "passably familiar with basic information about black-white race relations over the course of American history." Kennedy's critique may be similarly assessed: nothing especially new here, but all of it well said.

    A carefully calculated, sober discussion of why race will continue to haunt American politics.

     

    (COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    March 15, 2011

    Harvard law professor Kennedy, the author of best sellers like Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, considers racial politics in the time of the Obama presidency. Does Obama have particular responsibilities to the African American community? What's the racial opposition to him really like? These questions and more should engage the politically savvy. With a four-city tour.

    Copyright 2011 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Los Angeles Times Book Review Praise for Randall Kennedy

    Sellout
    "Sellout is brisk and enjoyable, no small feat given the density of its ideas . . . Worth reading for the light it shines on many subtleties of black history."
  • The Washington Post "Thought-provoking . . . [Kennedy offers] illuminating evidence that, despite great marks of progress, race's stranglehold on the nation's collective conscious remains as strong as ever."
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