I hope you are all having a restful and good weekend. I came upon this piece in today's NY Times Book Review and thought it quite fitting for some of our recent discussions about President Obama, race, respect, and identity.
Every campaign enlists its own meta-language. As Randall Kennedy reminds us in his provocative and richly insightful new book, “The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency,” the Obama forces disseminated several messages intended to soothe the racially freighted fears of the white electorate.
On one channel, they reassured voters that he was not an alien, but a normal American patriot. They also made clear that he was a “safe,” conciliatory black man who would never raise his voice in anger or make common cause with people, living or dead, who used race as a platform for grievance. On yet another wavelength, the candidate proffered his bona fides as a black man to African-Americans who were initially wary of his unusual upbringing, his white family ties and his predominantly white political support.
The press viewed this courtship of black voters as largely beside the point for a “post-racial” campaign that had bigger fish to fry on the white side of the street.
Randall Kennedy and others were spot on during the election of 2008 when they described Obama's candidacy as one where he was in an awkward position as a bound man who had to balance Black expectations, desires, and dreams, along with White anxieties and fears. Obama danced that fine line well enough to win the presidency.
However, the very personality traits and his experiences of upbringing that helped Obama to win the office of the presidency have been liabilities to his leadership while there. The structural limitations aside--and the racially motivated hostility of the Tea Party GOP fully noted--Obama's personality, identity, and personhood are the lived embodiment of an idealistic type of compromise. Consequently, America has a Compromiser in Chief who is not liberal enough for the Left and is too liberal for the Right; he is "too black" for some white folks and simultaneously "too white" for some blacks.
Barack Obama truly is a bound man, and for that reason (and many others) he is teetering on the edge of a failed presidency. Ironically, in one of his greatest moments as a candidate, the American people were offered a preview of Obama's dilemma and how it would lead to difficulties in his leadership and decision making as President.
Here, Kennedy's new book notes:
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.
Lauded at the time for its delivery and Obama's mastery of language and poise under pressure, the speech has not aged well. Even then I would urge people, my students in particular, to read the text of the speech as by doing so the utter ridiculousness of its premises are made clear.
Black Americans and white Americans are not equally culpable for the ills and evils of racism and the colorline. Obama equated white anger with black justice claims on full citizenship and opportunity. What is a laughable position. In reality, the latter is moral and just, and the former bitter and wrong.
Why did Obama choose to distort both history and the present by knowingly taking such an absurd and intellectually dishonest position?
While genius and smart, Obama is not a truth teller. He is more invested in compromise and finding a "middle ground" (even when to his own disadvantage) than in winning and fighting the good fight.
Ultimately, there is a great amount of pressure placed on "the firsts" in any endeavor. Like Jackie Robinson, Obama may not have been the best choice, but he was the right person at the right time. Moreover, Obama also has a racial temperament that would soothe white voters just enough to cast the ballot for him.
Brent Staples is spot on in this regard with his point that "...two-fistedness is not his nature. He would never have been elected had he run as, say, a brown-skinned version of the leg breaker Lyndon Johnson. The white electorate might one day be ready for a black president like that, but not yet."
The American people needed a leg breaker to correct this country's direction in a time of declining empire and the Great Recession. Sadly, it seems that with President Obama we got a soother and massage artist. The Tea Party GOP are going to enjoy Obama's services all the way to the end, because like any good masseuse he guarantees them a happy ending every time.