Books of The Times: One Nation, Still Divisible by Race

Books of The Times: One Nation, Still Divisible by Race

The New York Times

Dwight Garner

Randall Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. 322 pp.

August is not half over, and already it’s been a punishing month for Barack Obama: the debt limit fiasco; the Standard & Poor’s downgrade; the deaths of Navy Seals and other troops in Afghanistan. This powerful and ruminative book by Randall Kennedy, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency,” is unlikely to put the president in a more cheerful mood.

Mr. Kennedy, who is African-American, has long been among the most incisive American commentators on race. His books, which include “Race, Crime, and the Law” (1997) and the best seller “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” (2002), tend to arrive in full academic dress (his new one has footnotes and endnotes) and seem to be carved from intellectual granite, yet they have human scale. When it suits him, he can deploy references to Stevie Wonder and Kanye West as well as to Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mahalia Jackson and Malcolm X. He has the full panoply of the black experience in America at his fingertips…

…Mr. Kennedy is, deep down, an admirer of the president’s. (Mr. Obama, a Harvard Law graduate, signed up for, but did not ultimately take, one of Mr. Kennedy’s courses.) When he lists the many things black people love best about the president, it’s apparent that he’s speaking for himself as well. Among these reasons: Mr. Obama identifies himself as black, when he could have, like Tiger Woods, spoken of himself as mixed race; he married a black woman, while other powerful black men often marry white ones; he is dignified, “the most well-spoken, informed, gracious, cosmopolitan, agile, and thoughtful politician on the American political landscape.”…

…Once all that is out of the way, Mr. Kennedy is free to get down to business. He’s frustrated by many aspects of Mr. Obama’s leadership and is not shy about expressing himself. About Mr. Obama’s evolving stance on same-sex marriage, for example, Mr. Kennedy declares: “That the nation’s first black president defends separate but equal in the context of same-gender intimacy is bitterly ironic.”…

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