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the persistence of the color line

8 june 2012

One of the more puzzlingly-packed statements of the 2008 presidential campaign was the late Geraldine Ferraro's comment that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position [i.e., of contending for a major-party presidential nomination]" (145). Aside from being an aunt-had-testicles kind of remark, the statement was just false. If Barack Obama was a white man … OK, let's say Obama was white; let's say he was a tall, smart, handsome, white, top Harvard Law graduate with experience in blue-state politics and unquenchable political ambition. He'd be Mitt Romney.

So Ferraro's statement can't really mean anything at face value. Other meanings lurk below its nonsensical surface, part of the carefully-coded discourse of race that Randall Kennedy discusses in The Persistence of the Color Line. Ferraro in part meant that Obama's inexperience would have kept him far from the nomination if he were white, which is at least arguable (though Democratic primary voters have a long history of liking fresh faces, going back to John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter). But in part, her statement also has to be parsed as an attempt to read the mind of white liberal voters. "They want to be thought of as hip enough to vote for a black candidate," Ferraro seemed to be saying, "and any black candidate will do, even one nowhere near the stature or electability of Hillary Clinton."

Randall Kennedy addresses the odd but widespread right-wing belief that Barack Obama is a token figurehead for the frivolity and misplaced guilt of white voters on the one hand, and the mindless choice of race-identified black voters on the other. It's an odd belief because, while you can certainly have token black country-club members, even token black Cabinet members, you can't be a token President of the United States. Every President who wins election has to assemble a broad coalition of supporters, no matter how ad hoc or ephemeral. Obama certainly did so. He won huge majorities among Asian- and Hispanic-Americans, a substantial majority of women voters of all races, and a solid-enough minority of white males to prevail in both popular and electoral counts.

Kennedy addresses one element of the Obama coalition very clearly:

Obama received about 95 percent of the black vote. Had John Kerry been able to do that he would have become president of the United States. (252)
And while Obama's support among black voters was overdetermined – his center-left politics matches an African-American consensus – Kennedy shows that a strong element of this near-unanimous support was due to black voters loving the fact that they could vote for a black candidate.

To which one might rightly reply: that's democracy. Successful candidates in democratic elections often engage strong support among their own ethnic groups. Andrew Jackson was the hero of the Appalachian Scots-Irish; Martin Van Buren did pretty well among Dutch patroons, John Kennedy among the Catholic Irish. It never hurt John Mitchel, Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch – or David Dinkins, for that matter – to have the support of large and politically-mobilized ethnic groups when running for mayor of New York. And anyway, every preppy WASP who runs for office implicitly draws on support from his ethnic base; it's just that, so often, both candidates draw from that same base, and that base is "unmarked," taken for granted and therefore invisible. Obama just did what politicians do: establish a base and draw on their votes.

The fact that we're not supposed to talk about this is one theme of Randall Kennedy's book. Kennedy is an expert on things people aren't supposed to talk about; his most famous book is the thorough and thoughtful Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002). In The Persistence of the Color Line, much of his concern is focused on Barack Obama's reticence on racial issues. Aware that he will be accused of "playing the race card" every time he even seems to acknowledge that people come in different colors, Obama has walked the thinnest of tightropes ever since he started running for president.

A minor example of this ropewalking happened after Kennedy's book was published. Reviewing the wives of the Republican presidential hopefuls, Robert DeNiro asked "Do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady?" Ann Romney, for one, thought it was funny, and I agree. To risk explaining a joke, it's not an aspersion on these women's color; it's a parody of the great unspoken theme of the 2008 election: is our country ready for a black President?" Yet immediately, of course, Republicans condemned DeNiro for pointing out that race exists, and Michelle Obama chimed in by calling DeNiro's joke "inappropriate."

The stakes rarely get much greater than this, however, because candid talk about race is censored even more heavily than one-liners. When Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested – basically for being black and owning a house, as Gates strenuously pointed out – Obama called the arrest "stupid," and went on to note that blacks and Latinos are too often harrassed by police. Obama didn't accuse these specific police of racist motives, as Kennedy notes, but he was accused of having played the race card, and had to "walk back" his comments as briskly as he'd made them.

Kennedy also studies the confirmation of Obama's Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The eventually confirmed Sotomayor had once allowed that as a "wise Latina" she might have better judgment on some issues than white guys. Holding conspicuously-unmelted butter in their mouths, a parade of Republican white guys piously accused Sotomayor of racism, and she abased herself in apologies. Kennedy does say that it was unwise of Sotomayor to brag about her ethnic smarts. But on the scale of things to worry about in a confirmation hearing, this little outburst of racial pride seems decidedly unprejudicial, and totally unimportant.

But the cloak of platitudes that descended on the confirmation process reduced Sotomayor (and Elena Kagan after her) to political ciphers. They were forced to assert exactly the same judicial philosophy as that of their arch-conservative colleagues – a philosophy that they presumably don't intend to follow.

The consequences of this pact of silence may be only the embarrassment of quasi-perjury on the part of liberal Supreme Court nominees. But the repercussions are telling. Probably the most severe policy problem in the United States today is the mass incarceration of non-violent offenders – to be blunter, the stripping of civil rights from (mostly black) convicts who face lifelong identities as felons because they've been caught possessing drugs. If he can't say that police shouldn't shake down black homeowners, if his Supreme Court nominee can't refer to her ethnicity with pride, if he can't laugh at a wisecrack by Robert DeNiro, then President Obama can't begin to work on mass incarceration, or any kind of racial problem facing the country. To borrow Geraldine Ferraro's thoughts, if Nixon had been Chinese, there's no way he could have gone to China.

But Kennedy is certainly right in concluding that Obama has changed the history of race in America simply by being President. Every day that he spends in office without breaking into his opponents' national headquarters, falling down airplane stairs, selling arms to Iran to fund Contras, throwing up in the lap of the Japanese prime minister, or playing air guitar while New Orleans is under water – or, to be bipartisan, without being chased by an aquatic killer rabbit or having oral sex with an intern – every one of these days incrementally changes the minds of those who weren't sure America was ready for a black President. And it also ensures that a generation will grow up assuming that a black President is just as everyday a thing as a white President.

It is difficult to find reasonable, balanced books about President Obama. The stuff in the bookstores tends to alternate between vapid adulation on the one hand, and "his secret second-term plan is to make us all drive identically-colored Smart cars while surrendering our guns to the French" on the other. Kennedy, while obviously a liberal with a decided opinion on every issue he discusses, achieves balance by the counterintuitive method being true to his own principles. He's not an advocate for or against Obama; he's an advocate for his own view of the world, and he measures Obama against it. His most telling criticisms come when he faults Obama for leading from the rear. With reference to gay marriage, for instance, Kennedy's 2011 assessment is prescient:

It seems rather obvious that the evolution of his stated position is contingent upon the evolution of public opinion. As the public more fully accepts same-sex marriage, so too will Obama. (28)
That's exactly what happened in May 2012. To give Obama some credit, he changed his ideas about gay marriage in the aftermath of a crushing defeat to marriage rights in a key swing state (North Carolina) that he'd barely won in 2008. But as Kennedy points out, you can often make long-term political gains by backing a losing proposition in the near term (even, as in this instance, retroactively). Kennedy's main point is proven, though: Obama does not lead very often. But he's good at fitting into principled, mainstream positions that are different from those of his opponents.

That's why I voted for Obama in 2008, and will vote for him again. I am a white liberal, of the kind likely to be suspected by Geraldine Ferraro of voting for a black candidate just because it establishes my superficial hipness. But I like to think I didn't choose a candidate that way. I looked at a relatively detailed list of positions in (IIRC) the Washington Post, that compared Obama to Clinton point-by-point, and found that he'd usually established a position just to her left. He vowed to end a war that she'd voted to start; he vowed to enact a comprehensive health-care bill that she'd failed to enact in 1993-94. He's disappointed me, as he has many other liberals, but he followed through on the main commitments, and I'd rather see more blandly-confirmed Supreme Court justices like Sotomayor and Kagan than blandly-confirmed ones like Roberts and Alito. As Kennedy admits after subjecting the President to much criticism, he's done a solid job.

Kennedy, Randall. The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial politics and the Obama presidency. New York: Pantheon [Random House], 2011.

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