The Too Black, Too White Presidency

The Too Black, Too White Presidency

The New York Times

Brent Staples

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

The next time you see Barack Obama gliding into a White House press conference, take note of that jazzy walk. It is a dead ringer for the strut that was the bearing of choice among ­inner-city cool guys in the 1960s, when Barry Obama was still a tyke growing up in the exotic precincts of Hawaii and Indonesia. The Obama glide represents his embrace of a black aesthetic that was not his by circumstance of birth. It speaks on an intimate frequency to African-­American men, who have been smiling in recognition and rating it for style ever since he stepped into the national spotlight. President Obama is acutely aware of how to deploy the physical self to excellent effect. If we looked back closely at 2008, we would no doubt notice him amping up the glide for black audiences and dialing it back elsewhere…

…The messianic glow that surrounded Obama’s candidacy—Kennedy and others call it “Obamamania”—precluded closer scrutiny of his pronouncements, especially those having to do with race. The widely held notion that the now-famous race speech, “A More Perfect Union,” ranked with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” strikes Kennedy as delusional. The speech, he writes, was little more than a carefully calibrated attempt to defuse the public relations crisis precipitated by the Wright affair. Far from frank, it understated the extent of the country’s racial divisions and sought to blame blacks and whites equally for them, when in fact, Kennedy writes, “black America and white America are not equally culpable. White America enslaved and Jim Crowed black America (not the other way around).” The speech was in keeping with the candidate’s wildly successful race strategy, which involved making white voters feel better about themselves whenever possible.

The cornerstone essay, “Obama Courts Black America,” is a breath of fresh air on many counts, not least of all because it offers a fully realized portrait of the black political opinion—left, right, center, high and low—that was brought to bear during the campaign. This is the most comprehensive document I’ve yet read on the near street fight that erupted over the question of how Obama should identify himself racially. There were those who viewed him as “too white” to be legitimately seen as black; those who had no problem with his origins; those who viewed the attempt to portray him as “mixed race” as a way of trying to “whiten” him for popular consumption; and those who accused Obama of throwing his white mother under the bus when it became clear that he regarded himself as African-American…

Read the entire article here.

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