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Randall Kennedy on Obama's victory


     I attended the inauguration of Barack Obama with two million other people who created the largest crowd in the history of Washington, D.C. Although I grew up in the nation's capital, I had never before attended an inauguration. None had previously beckoned. But this time I felt compelled to be present. (...)

     At the inauguration, I luxuriated in the knowledge that, at long last, a Negro would join, and thereby irrevocably change, that exclusive club of American Presidents which was initially dominated by slaveholders. Nine of the first fifteen Presidents owned Negro slaves, including George Washington who referred to them as a troublesome species of property. When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, one of seven Americans was enslaved,  nearly two hundred by the principal author of  the Declaration of Independence.

     At the inauguration I enjoyed the thought that Barack Obama would occupy the same post as Warren G. Harding, who, bowing to segregation, had insisted upon the fundamental, eternal, and inescapable difference between whites and blacks; the same post Calvin Coolidge won after being nominated at a political convention at which a chicken-wire screen separated white and black delegates to the 1924 Republican convention; the same post as the legendary Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose administration barred Negro reporters from his press conferences for most of his tenure as the Chief Executive; the same post as that occupied by Richard Milhous Nixon who casually and repeatedly referred to blacks as jigs and niggers.  I derived pleasure from recalling that while the eminent writer Toni Morrison had described Bill Clinton metaphorically as America's first black president, now, in January 2009, metaphor was giving way to reality. (...)

     Many observers spoke of Obama's inauguration as a monument marking a fundamental discontinuity in American life: BO - Before Obama - the United States was mired in distraction about all  things racial, but AO - After Obama - a miraculous cleansing occurred. Race no longer mattered. The election of a black man signalled the coming of a post-racial society. This triumphalist reading of the election was posited by the conservative Wall Street Journal when it claimed, the day after Obama's victory, that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. (...)


     Racial discrimination - disfavoring an individual or group because of perceived racial affiliation - is a stigmatized behavior: it is generally viewed as morally wrong. That was not always so. Until the 1960s, many Americans were altogether willing to say openly that they believed that whites are morally and intellectually superior to blacks and that it was perfectly appropriate to discriminate against blacks on a racial basis in competitions for employment, housing, education, and other endeavors. One of the great achievements of the  Civil Rights Revolution (helped to no small degree by universal disgust with the racist outrages of Nazism) was the delegitimation of anti-black prejudice. The struggles advanced by figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall and Bayard Rustin placed a moral cloud over racial discrimination. They made racial bigotry not only unfashionable but contemptible. They made it an object of scorn and a target for ostracism. A result is that the prevalence of racial discrimination has been diminished. It has by no means been eradicated; racial discrimination is still very much present in American life. But when people consciously engage in racial discrimination, they typically deny that they are and often take care to hide their real motivations. (...)

     During the campaign for the presidency, Obama was harshly chastized by influential arbiters of public opinion when he jokingly remarked that his rival's camp would try to dissuade voters from supporting him because, among other things, he did not "look like" previous presidents. More recently, right-wing journalists such as Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck have accused Obama of "hating" whites and engaging in reverse discrimination. These accusations have no plausible foundation. But they generate publicity that fuels racial anxiety and create opportunities for mis-statements or over-reactions by Obama and his defenders which, in turn, create additional publicity, further exacerbating racial tensions. Even though the enemies of Obama make no persuasive argument to back up their assertions that he "hates" white people, the naked assertion itself is injurious to the President. It forces the public to think anew about his race. It literally "blackens" him.

General comprehension

1) According to you, what is the best title for this extract? Justify your choice.
- racism is dead
- racial discrimination won't die out
- a new page in history
- slavery is history
- black power
- the end of white supremacy
- blacks and whites united

2) Put the following sentences in logical order, according to the order of the document:
a) As we can see with racist reporters who force people to think about the colour of Obama's skin.
b) But this was a special occasion.
c) Randall Kennedy had never listened to an inauguration before Obama's.
d) Randall Kennedy mentions that some people said Obama's presidency was marking the end of racial tensions.
e) Nevertheless, Randall Kennedy explains that racism and discrimination are still topical.
f) About how blacks were discriminated against.
g) While Obama was addressing the Washington crowd, Randall Kennedy thought about how racism had been a part of the American institution.

Detailed comprehension

Part 1 (paragraphs 1 to 4)

1) Match the following words together:

Words from the text   

felt compelled to


be present at
be obliged to
that cannot be avoided
take place

2) RIGHT or WRONG. Justify your answer quoting from the text:
a) Randall Kennedy made a trip to Washington to go and listen to Obama's speech. (§1)
b) The first American presidents owned slaves. (§2)
c) George Washington considered Afro-Americans as objects. (§2)
d) Nearly 15% of Americans were slaves at the beginning of the 19th century. (§2)
e) Bill Clinton was the first black president in the USA. (§3)
f) A Southern newspaper claimed that Obama's victory marked the end of racial issues. (§4)

Focus on paragraph 3

3) What did Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Milhous Nixon have in common?

4) What elements show that former President Nixon didn't mind being a racist?

5) "(...) metaphor was giving way to reality." What reality is referred to here?

Focus on paragraph 4

7) What did observers mean when they mentioned a post-racial society?

8) On a sociological, historical and biblical point of view, what does Randall Kennedy mean by a miraculous cleansing?

Part 2 (paragraphs 5 and 6)

Focus on paragraph 5

1) Choose the best synonym for each of the following words:
- bigotry: prejudice - tolerance - segregation - religion
- contemptible: acceptable - hidden - shameful - illegal
- harshly: gently - hardly - severely - slightly
- chastized: praised - questioned - followed - punished
- fuels: encourages - prevents - insists on - diminishes

2) To what extent did public opinion change regarding the way racial discimination was perceived in the 1960s? Who made this change possible?

3) Fill in the chart below:
Elements showing that racial discrimination used to be favorably considered Words and phrases showing that racial discrimination is now badly considered
slaveholding US presidents


Focus on paragraph 6

4) Explain the notion of "reverse discrimination."

5) What kind of people do you think blamed Obama for hating Whites? Explain their reasons and intentions.

6) What does THAT refer to in "That was not always so."

Grammar - WOULD

1) Focus on the first lines of paragraphs 2 and 3:
-  "At the inauguration, I luxuriated in the knowledge that, at long last, a Negro would join,  (...) that exclusive club of American Presidents (...)"
-  "At the inauguration I enjoyed the thought that Barack Obama would occupy the same post as Warren G. Harding (...)"
a) Complete the following sentences:
During the inauguration, Randall Kennedy thought: "At long last, ..."
During the inauguration, Randall Kennedy thought: "Barack Obama ..."
b) What modal did you use? What does it express in those sentences: past, present or future?

2) What is WOULD used for in the text? It's used:
-to talk about the past
-to talk about a habit in the past
-to talk about the future in the past
-to express the conditional mood
-to express a polite request

3) Explain how WOULD is formed: _____ + _____ = WOULD

4) What rule can you deduce from these observations? Complete the following sentence:
-When ____ is used to talk about the ____ , ____ is used to express the ____________ .

Would - Consulter le précis de grammaire
Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy is a Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. His research interests lie at the intersection of racial conflicts and legal institutions in American life.

Further readings
- Rêve américain, Rêve d'Amérique
Un ensemble d'articles universitaires sur le Rêve Américain et ses différentes manifestations.

- Le couple Obama incarnation de l'American Dream?
Un article de Pierre-Marie Loizeau

- Le rêve américain dans la rhétorique présidentielle américaine moderne (1937-2010)
Un article d'Aurélie Godet

- Race Relations and the Presidency of Barack Obama
Lire et écouter l'intégralité du discours de Randall Kennedy

- Interview de Randall Kennedy
Un entretien sur les conséquences de la victoire d'Obama et sur la notion de discrimination positive.

- Barack Obama's State of the Union Address - 2010

- Barack Obama's State of the Union Address - 2011

- The Second Inauguration of Barack Obama
Mise à jour le 22 novembre 2013
Créé le 3 février 2011
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues