The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

Image of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
August 16, 2011
Publisher/Imprint: 
Pantheon
Pages: 
336
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“This book does what books like this should: provoke thought and conversation in addressing issues that are highly uncomfortable. The Persistence of the Color Line is a fascinating, stimulating, and necessary read for those who wish to gain insight into an issue that will likely not fade away in the foreseeable future.”

The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
is the book that many of us were expecting to come out during the Obama Administration. Most likely many more books like this will be written after the Obama years—all measuring the impact of the question of race on a nation after the election of the first African American President.

Randall Kennedy, a Harvard professor of law and author of the New York Times bestseller Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, is the right person to discuss this issue in a credible manner. The subject of color is fascinating, sure to stimulate discussion regarding the persistence in the color line in politics, and now the persistence in the color line in the presidency.

Mr. Kennedy does not shy away from controversial subjects as he discusses the controversy about President Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Jeremiah Wright controversy was the catalyst for the discussion about race during the Obama campaign for the presidency.

Barack Obama had a close personal relationship with Wright over many years and it was Wright who inspired Obama to become a “devout Christian.” It was Wright who officiated at the Obamas’ wedding, baptized their children, consecrated their home, and was an unofficial political advisor to the ambitious politician. In fact, the title of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, was inspired by a Wright sermon.

Kennedy discusses in detail how the Reverend Wright controversy questions Obama’s patriotism. He discusses the basis of Reverend Wright’s belief as a black liberation theologian. Professor Randall Kennedy makes a convincing argument that the root of the arguments against Obama concerns his race and not at all his patriotism. Did he, Obama, agree with Wright’s assessment of “God Damn America!” Mr. Kennedy makes clear he does not agree with the remarks, but does defend Wright for other reasons. Those remarks eventually forced Obama to completely disavow and disown Reverend Wright.

Mr. Kennedy also addresses the remarks made by Michelle Obama during the primaries in 2008 when she revealingly confessed that except for the presidential campaign she felt no pride in her country. These type of comments forced Obama into a vigorous defense of his patriotism. It was not long after these types of events that candidate Obama started wearing a flag pin on his lapel. Obama was criticized by many conservatives as “unpatriotic” for not wearing the flag.

It is easier for the opponents of Barack Obama to challenge his credentials as an “unpatriotic American” than to attack and belittle his race as an African American. Being “unpatriotic” is code for being black.

The Persistence of the Color Line discusses the irony of the great hope among people of color felt upon the election of Barack Obama. Reflecting the excitement of election night, a distinguished black jurist said, “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?’”

Obama’s election also created fear. Would President Obama be treated this way if he were white? The question came up often during the recent debt default debate and was a common thread on black radio. Would they treat him this way if he were white?

Did they not treat President George W. Bush differently when he asked for the same thing seven times without such a controversy being raised? Seven times Bush asked for a raise in the debt ceiling without much of a peep from naysayers. Would a sitting congressman ever have thought of calling any other president a “liar” in full view of the nation, as happened to President Obama?

This story dates back to 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and the secession of the southern states that led to the Civil War. During the election of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was running for reelection and was accused of “negro-worshiping,” denounced ironically by Democrats of defending “flat-nosed, wooly-headed, long-heeled, cursed of God, and damned of man descendant of Africa.” This 1864 campaign was the first of the racially charged political campaigns and the latest was the 2008 political campaigns also charged with race.

The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that eventually led to the 14th Amendment in 1868 that gave all African Americans civil freedom—only to be effectively taken away in Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling, the racially charged separate but equal ruling. Plessy v. Ferguson was then overturned by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka many years later, but it did little toward calming the conversation of the persistence of color prejudice in politics. Continuing into the late 1950s and early 1960s and culminating into the great LBJ victories of the Civil Rights Act and the Voters Rights Act, the conversation merely sneaked into the background.

Until Barack Obama came along and with him came the possibility he could be elected.

Nonetheless, today, as the book argues, we are still fighting the battle of color.

The Persistence of the Color Line is a fascinating discussion of the nature of color in politics and the huge impact made upon the discussion by President Barack Obama. Author Randall Kennedy discusses the matters of race in the 2008 Presidential campaign, including the primary fight with Hilary Clinton and later the general election against Senator John McCain.

Mr. Kennedy discusses the remarks about Obama by former President Bill Clinton during the South Carolina primary when he compared him to other black candidates running for president, saying that Jesse Jackson Sr. was a much better candidate. Was Clinton saying that Jackson was blacker? Mr. Kennedy argues that Clinton was attempting to racially marginalize Obama when comparing him to other candidates. The target was the black voter in South Carolina. It is also true that Clinton was being a strong advocate for his wife, who was also running for the office.

Mr. Kennedy also discusses the relationship of Obama to other black candidates—recall the now famous remarks of Jesse Jackson Sr. regarding Obama’s “talking down to black people” and what Jesse Sr. would like to do to him. Yet this instance soon played into Obama’s favor when he distanced himself from Jackson Sr.

The Persistence of the Color Line also discusses the racial politics of the nomination and confirmation Sonia Maria Sotomayor as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and discusses events during the Presidency up to today.

This book does what books like this should: provoke thought and conversation in addressing issues that are highly uncomfortable. The Persistence of the Color Line is a fascinating, stimulating, and necessary read for those who wish to gain insight into an issue that will likely not fade away in the foreseeable future.