Posted: March 23, 2009
e live in racially interesting times. As I write, Barack Obama, a charismatic figure who ran an almost flawless campaign in an economically and politically felicitous context, has just become the first black leader of the free world. His election was the end of an era and the welcome beginning of a new one. Whatever one thinks of his politics, his stunning success—almost unimaginable just a few years ago—is a historic turning point. Integration was the aim of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and much of the 1960s, and, by the ultimate test, American politics is now integrated. Indeed, Obama's racial identity was an advantage on November 4. The black vote rose about 15 points, and exit polling suggests white racists were outnumbered by whites who thought his race an attractive feature.
Winds of change are also blowing through the intellectual world. Old assumptions about white racism and black victimization are still very much alive, but they are finally being challenged by important black writers who see an altered racial landscape and grapple in fresh and interesting ways with the problems it poses. With President Obama and a crop of maverick black authors, we are witnessing what might be called the incredible shrinking of Jesse Jackson and his allies—the civil rights community, the mainstream media, and the politically timid who fear that someone, someday, might play the race card and destroy their careers.
Thus after many decades, the hold of the thought police who stifle dissent from conventional civil rights orthodoxy has clearly been broken. Richard Thompson Ford, professor of law at Stanford University, writes about the concept of discrimination, which by now is in a "state of crisis." "When does a grievance deserve the special and unequivocal condemnation reserved for racism?" he asks. In today's racially complex setting, the answer is "getting more convoluted and confusing." Randall Kennedy, also on the Left but known for his intellectual independence at Harvard Law School, focuses on the notion of the black sellout—blacks as traitors to their race, a charge often leveled at him. And Shelby Steele, an author familiar to many CRB readers, explores the "complex" biracial identity that he and Barack Obama share. These are important books, and also good reads—written in lively, engaging prose.
Barack Obama is explicitly the subject only in Shelby Steele's A Bound Man, but all three authors are concerned with the racial subtext of a presidential campaign that tried to ignore the unresolved American Dilemma. Obama could largely avoid the question of race; his color, in itself, spoke volumes about racial progress in a racially-challenged nation. Richard Thompson Ford writes about the dangerous impact of racial "gripes...as common as face cards in a pinochle deck," but by the standards of most black politicians, Obama ran a largely gripe-free campaign—as he had to to if he wanted to survive politically.
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Kennedy starts with a fundamental question raised by the figure of Obama: "Who is ‘black?'" Early in the campaign, readers may remember, at least some black opinion-makers saw him as not authentically black—a man who, as prominent writer Debra Dickerson put it, might "go Tiger Woods on us and get all race transcendent." She was reluctant, she said, "to point out the obvious: Obama isn't black." It wasn't a new issue. Former Black Panther member Bobby Rush crushed Mr. Obama in a 2000 primary election, depicting him as "not from us, not from the 'hood." He was ostensibly organizing the people, yet still too Harvard. In fact, too-Harvard was undoubtedly one of the secrets of his later success. The racially ambiguous image he projected—black and not-black—surely helped attract white votes. And with his cultural style, he easily passed the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" test.
Obama projected a racially ambiguous image, but he was not himself ambivalent about his racial identity. He chose to call himself black, notes Kennedy. "After all, despite his appearance, he could have done what Tiger Woods and many other multiracial Americans have done—opted for a designation other than ‘black' or ‘African American.'" And he could have chosen a place of worship other than Trinity Church, and married white. His mother and grandparents who brought him up were white; living in Indonesia and Hawaii, he came to age without the painful experience that so many native-born African-Americans share. But, as Steele says, "the need to belong is one of life's more powerful inclinations." And as Obama himself wrote in Dreams from My Father (2004), "Wandering through Altgeld or other tough neighborhoods, my fears were always internal: the old fears of not belonging."
The luxury of choice—of deciding whether race is a home in which you really want to live—is of course quite new in America. And the deck is heavily stacked against such self-definition. Even now, it is hard to escape the world of the boxes demanding you identify yourself for one purpose or another. Although in crucial ways Obama did consciously reshape himself to become unmistakably "black," as Kennedy argues, it is also the case that racial and ethnic labels remain deeply ingrained in the American way of life.
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Steele, who has also struggled with "authenticity," recalls a 60 Minutes interview in which Obama responded to a question about his mixed race. "He was ‘rooted,'" he said, "in the African-American community, but he was also ‘more than that.'" What, however, did "African-American community" mean? One can see oneself as black (as Steele undoubtedly does) yet not "rooted" in a racially defined community. In fact, Kennedy depicts the "community known as Black America" as "imagined."
And yet, imagined or not, most blacks believe in it, reinforcing the notion of African-Americans as still "other." The perceived reality of a black community invites widespread anxieties about racial betrayal; hence the specter of the sellout, which haunts black discourse. The consequence is a serious curtailment of freedom for most blacks. For those with political aspirations, appealing to white folks suggests a questionable commitment to the values of the group, as Kennedy notes. Blacks are admonished by what one journalist has called the "Soul Patrol" to stay black, which means, among other things, remaining true to liberal civil rights orthodoxy: a commitment to affirmative action, for instance, is a litmus test of belonging. Certainly "sleeping white" is evidence of collaboration with the enemy—although Frederick Douglass himself had a white (second) wife. In Obama's case, marrying a white woman would have been politically problematic. A substantial number of black voters would likely have stuck with their first choice: Hillary.
Not all blacks embrace the value of racial solidarity, Kennedy writes. Some African-Americans "reject the notion that a person must or should join and assist the racial ‘team' to which society has assigned them.... They decline to be ‘race men' or ‘race women' and opt instead to associate themselves with voluntary groupings that are free from the bounds of racial ascription." Although he sees himself as part of the "team," he advocates a conception of racial citizenship in which choice is always an element; "all Negroes should be voluntary Negroes." (Kennedy's interesting use of the term "Negro" is, of course, a signal in itself of intellectual independence.)
It is a radical notion—an important break with most blacks who, as he says, want to retain "a sense of group solidarity and its attendant manifestations in social, cultural, and political life (historically black colleges and universities, black student unions, black fraternities and sororities, black professional associations, etc.)." If more widely embraced, Kennedy's views would have important implications for the higher education landscape—for the future of policies that sanction separation on the assumption that all blacks belong to a culturally distinctive group, as well as admissions policies that give significant weight to racial identity.
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Not only black student unions and black sororities, but also multicultural programs in institutions of higher education deeply trouble Richard Ford. In the division between those who believe in social integration (a shrinking group) and those who favor racial solidarity and cultural autonomy, he places himself squarely in the former, now unfashionable, camp. In doing so he returns to the stress on individual freedom and the belief in blacks and whites as brothers under the skin that ran from Gunnar Myrdal to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1980s, Ford writes, multiculturalism became "a potent force that remade the core curriculum of many universities." But embracing the salience of racial difference is dangerous, he argues. Those who question multiculturalism—and its assumption that every culture is equally precious—find themselves condemned as racist. The race card is carelessly played, ignoring a fundamental fact: "All education involves socialization as well as the acquisition of new knowledge." By "socialization" he means cultural assimilation, which he describes "as valuable a credential as any college degree." This point, too, is a return to Gunnar Myrdal who (in Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America), a small volume that predated An American Dilemma), viewed schooling in conformity to the American Creed as the foundation upon which a racially just society would be built.
Ford wants a return to the ideal of integration, but most importantly, he wants an end to conversation-stopping charges of racism regarding issues over which reasonable people can differ. Both he and Kennedy urge more nuance and civility in the national conversation on race, in a nation much changed since the civil rights movement. As Ford puts it: The terms racism and discrimination no longer have a "single clear and agreed-upon meaning.... Self-serving individuals, rabble-rousers, and political hacks use accusations of racism...to advance their own ends."
By now, as he states, racial bias has become "unlawful, immoral, and perhaps more important, déclassé." And yet "in our racially charged society, a minor snub or simple lapse of etiquette may be misinterpreted as a racial insult." Jesse Jackson did not hesitate to compare "the temporary shelters in the New Orleans Superdome [after Hurricane Katrina] to the hull of a slave ship." Subtle and complex problems that have multiple causes (inner-city poverty, disproportionately high black incarceration rates, and the like) evoke "the language of civil rights—‘racism,' ‘discrimination,' ‘bias,' ‘bigotry.'" Such misleading rhetoric is a potent weapon; those whom he calls the "antiracists" have "the full coercive power of government and the weight of popular consensus" behind them. That power "attracts the unscrupulous opportunist along with the sincere victim and the honest petitioner."
"Overuse and abuse of the claim of bias is bad for society and bad for social justice," Ford argues. "The accusation of bigotry inevitably provokes defensiveness and resentment rather than thoughtful reaction"—a point many whites (who have little patience with "black radical agitators and malcontents") express privately. Playing the race card is particularly troubling to Ford—a man of the Left—because he believes that "racial segregation seems about as certain as death and taxes," and fears a backlash in which problems like residential separation, health care, and job security will end up ignored.
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Steele's book on Obama, published early in the campaign, argued that he couldn't win; he was a "bound man." His chosen African-American identity bound him to a worldview, the center of which was white oppression. But in fact he rose to the top, Steele argues, by having absorbed his mother's "rigid creed" of personal responsibility for his fate. "It was not a "Black Value System" that prepared [him] so well for the world.... It was not black anything."
Steele was too pessimistic about Obama's political prospects, but right to finger a bind Obama may not be able to escape. Polling data depict a large number of blacks deeply alienated from American society and profoundly distrustful of the white majority. Will Obama decisively break with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and, building on his own experience, use his bully pulpit to teach that black progress depends on children working hard in school, rather than on new government programs? Will he have the courage to say American society is not fundamentally unfair to blacks? If he does, our first black president may eventually be seen by many black voters as a Bill Cosby-style "sellout"—not the man they voted for, and not the man they want.
Let's hope not. Black estrangement from American mainstream culture is arguably our most serious race-related problem. A recent CNN poll found that 69% of African Americans believe the vision of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in his 1963 ‘‘I Have a Dream'' speech has now been fulfilled. Black spirits have been rising at a remarkable pace. If President Obama can encourage the new black optimism and alter the racial conversation, joining the black authors whose works I review here in breaking new ground, we will be on a very different road than we have been in the past.
We live in racially interesting times.