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Race Relations and the Presidency of Barack Obama

Par Randall Kennedy : Law professor and author - Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Publié par Clifford Armion le 05/03/2010

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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. The sentiments that gripped me were similar to those that animated many who attended the proceedings.

Enregistrement du discours prononcé à l'Institution des Chartreux, à l'invitation de la Villa Gillet :

Transcription du discours

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. The sentiments that gripped me were similar to those that animated many who attended the proceedings. Irma Brown-Williams from Tuskeegee, Alabama, showed up wearing a coat on which she had pinned photos of her mother, father, and siblings, all of whom were deceased. Asked to explain, she remarked "I'm here for them... They could not be here, so I brought them with me." I, too, felt an obligation to witness in person Obama's installation on behalf of loved ones whom I achingly wished could have been alive to share the joy of the occasion.

In my imagination I brought my Father to the inauguration, an African American who would have supported Obama fervently and would have vowed to whip all the black off of any Negro who did not support him. I also brought my wonderful wife, Yvedt Matory, a brilliant cancer surgeon, who died of cancer when she was only forty-eight years old. Yvedt was at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and heard Obama deliver the speech that elevated him to political stardom. She lauded his eloquence, poise, intelligence and vision. She also admired his evident ambition, like hers, to be freeof any racially confining expectations. She would have exulted at his success in showing so many Americans, including blacks - especially blacks - that an African American could realistically aspire to be the country's chief executive and then victoriously campaign for the position.

I also brought with me Yvedt's father, Dr. William Matory, Sr., also a surgeon. A man who devoted himself tirelessly to the elevation of Freedman's hospital (now the Howard University Hospital) and the National Medical Association (NMA), the organization created by black physicians as an alternative to the American Medical Association (AMA) when it excluded black doctors, Dr, Matory lay dying in the intensive care unit of the Howard University Hospital during the inaugural festivities. He held on just long enough to see on television what would have seemed inconceivable for most of his life.

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 least Jefferson saw slavery as a moral evil. That was not so with the progenitor of Obama's Democratic Party - "Old Hickory" - President Andrew Jackson. Jackson saw nothing wrong with owning and selling slaves. Neither did President James K. Polk whose wife replaced White House servants with slaves and transformed the White House basement into slave quarters.

The most fervent Negrophobe to ever occupy the White House, Andrew Johnson, was the successor to Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated President who, before Obama, was the Chief Executive most admired among Negroes. A foe of almost all of the federal constitutional and statutory provisions that sought to elevate blacks during the aftermath of the Civil War, Johnson asserted unabashedly that this is a country for white men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."

During his campaign and in his gracious concession speech to Obama on election night, Senator John McCain made reference to the fact that President Theodore Roosevelt had infuriated many Americans when he invited the black leader Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House on October 16, 1901. Although McCain's remarks were a welcome acknowledgement of racism in American history, the reaction against Washington's presence at dinner at the White House was even more vicious than McCain's comments suggested. The Memphis [Tennessee] Scimitar newspaper editorialized that Roosevelt's dining with a  nigger constituted the most damnable outrage that has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States. Similarly  angered was Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina who declared that the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.

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.

The President and his family are the closest thing to royalty that exists in the United States. They are the First Family. It is widely considered to be an honor to be in their presence. When they enter a gathering, all rise in recognition of their pre-eminence. They confer prestige onto any person, entertainment, restaurant, or book that they favor. Their every movement, gesture, word, and article of clothing is publicized.

The status of the President's family as America's royalty was on full display at the Inauguration. That event was tantamount to a democratic coronation. It was a day on which the overwhelming majority of Americans set aside political disagreements to affirm their fealty to the office and symbol of the Presidency. It was a moment at which millions of Americans, including those who voted for Senator McCain, nonetheless offered best wishes to the victor and proclaimed that he is their President, too.

Many Americans received vicarious enjoyment as they watched the Obamas receive international accolades. Most blacks shared that enjoyment and experienced as well an unprecedented sense of validation as they witnessed one of their own ascend to the highest tier of prestige and power in American society. After long years of degradation that gave way to ostracism that gave way to invisibility that gave way to tokenism, the emergence of an African American First Family offered to Black America an unprecedented thrill.

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.

For all of the dramatic transformations mirrored and wrought by Obama's election, however, it also displayed the haunting persistence of the race line. Much of what Obama had to surmount in order to get elected was rooted in America's racial traumas. He had to overcome doubts lodged deep in the psyches of blacks, his essential base. He had to overcome fear that he would be unable to convince working-class whites to vote for him once they entered the sanctuary of the voting booth. He had to overcome detractors who complained that he is not "black enough."  And he also had to overcome enemies who complained that he was married to a prototypical angry" black woman.

That Obama won the election despite these impediments shows racial progress.  But that he had to surmount them also shows the stubborn resilience of racial – resistance. Moreover, the special circumstances under which he prevailed counsel caution in interpreting the election as the ultimate racial breakthrough that some see it as representing. After all, he was helped by a perfect storm - the dramatic economic collapse that transfixed America in the weeks immediately preceding the vote, two unresolved military conflicts abroad, the evident flaws of an aged opponent, the presence of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin whom many voters perceived as dangerously ill-prepared, the off-putting model of a discredited Republican incumbent President, and a strong electoral tide in favor of Democrats. Do we honestly believe, a student skeptically asked in the wake of the election, that, under normal circumstances, a black person [can] be elected to the highest office in the land, or do we think [that] this [election] was simply an aberration?

True, Obama did triumph decisively, winning the Electoral College 338 to 163. He was the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter to win a majority of the popular vote and his 52% take was the largest slice for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964. Obama also captured a larger share of the white vote than either Al Gore or John Kerry and beat John McCain 54% to 44% among young (under 30) whites. Obama, however, lost to McCain in the overall competition for the white vote. While Obama won 95% of the black vote, 66% of the latino vote, and 62% of the Asian-American vote, he won only 43% of the white vote (to McCain's 55%). These polarities reflect more than voters' reactions to the race of candidates. Differing assessments of character and programmatic orientations also help to explain why whites tend to vote Republican in presidential contests while blacks and other racial minorities tend to vote Democratic. But it is also true that racial sentiments interact with and influence the ideological and cultural dispositions - e.g., attitudes toward taxation, social welfare programs, expressions of patriotism, governmental protection of traditionally oppressed groups - that have contributed to a situation in which, by and large, the Democratic Party is a refuge for blacks while the Republican Party is conspicuous in the degree to which blacks are absent from its ranks, especially in presidential contests. While racial prejudice is not the only explanation for racially distinctive patterns of partisanship, it is indisputably one explanation and an important on  at that. Surely it is no coincidence that in the presidential contest of 2008, the states in which racial polarization in voting was most stark - Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina - are also the states with the most infamous histories of white supremacist politics.

How has Obama's race figured into Americans' responses to his presidency, particularly the often fervent opposition to him and his policies?

An accurate answer is difficult to discern for several interrelated reasons. First, racial discrimination is hard to identify. Second, public attempts to identify racial discrimination are often politically costly.

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.

Deciphering ambiguous conduct is often a complex, time-consuming, uncertain business. Consider the relatively simple case of a black customer in a store. A white cashier says something nasty to the customer. Racial discrimination? Maybe. On the other hand, perhaps the cashier has just received terrible news that made him angry temporarily. Or maybe the cashier is a jack-ass who treats everyone rudely. Furthermore, the problem of identification is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves.  Many people who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not. As it becomes socially hurtful to label someone as racially prejudiced, it also becomes incumbent to make such charges carefully to avoid wrongful accusations. The stigmatizing force of the charge thus becomes an inhibition upon deploying the charge. Nowadays to make an unsubstantiated charge of racial prejudice is nearly as discrediting as to be accused of being racially prejudiced. People who make unsubstantiated charges of  racial discrimination are accused of "playing the race card." Nothing has more besmirched the reputations of  certain black leaders - Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come immediately to mind - than charges that they make allegations of racial discrimination opportunistically and irresponsibly.  

The difficulty of identifying racial prejudice and the cost of attempting to do so doing is highlighted by an episode that transpired in September 2009. From the outset of his Presidency, Obama had pressed the Congress to enact health care reforms. In September he did so again, this time in the form of a nationally telecast speech before both houses of Congress. In the course of the speech, Obama made his case and answered criticisms. One criticism that had been raised is that legislation he had proposed failed to exclude illegal aliens from the health-care benefits offered. When President Obama disputed the accuracy of this criticism, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a Republican Member of the House of Representatives, screamed: "You  lie!" This was highly unusual, indeed unprecedented. For a member of Congress to express displeasure with a President through silence or even booing or hissing is not uncommon. But for a Representative to shout at a President and call him a liar entailed an unusually brazen act of disrespect that elicited widespread condemnation, including the disapproval of most prominent Republican politicians.

There was, then, little controversy over whether Joe Wilson had acted badly; most observers agree that he had. There was controversy, however, regarding whether Wilson's conduct was racially discriminatory. Maureen Dowd, the acerbic columnist for the New York Times concluded that race did play a role in Wilson's outburst. "I've been loath to admit," she declared, "that the... frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi... had  much  to  do  with  race... But  Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president... convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it." According to Dowd, "Wilson clearly did not like being lectured [to] by the brainy black president..."

Another observer who identified Wilson's conduct as racially discriminatory was former President Jimmy Carter. Asked about "You  Lie!" Carter remarked: "Racism...  still exists and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply."

On the other hand, there were many observers who viewed Wilson's shout as mere rudeness, a regrettable, even egregious, lapse into incivility but a gesture which should not have been tagged with the stigmatizing label "racist." Decrying what she views as American's "hair-trigger response to any remark or action involving an African American," Kathleen Parker asserted that "It is profoundly irresponsible... to call Wilson a racist." Pressing her point, Parker averred that "It is the height (or depth) of racism to suggest that any opposition to Obama's policies is race-based." Similarly, columnist Kevin Ferris of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper charged that those who accused Wilson of racial discrimination were themselves playing the race card because the evidence in support of the allegation against Wilson was, in Ferris's estimation, "slim to none." All that the tormenting political correctness police could point to, Ferris asserted, was that Representative Wilson was southern, white conservative, and Republican. Actually, those who accused Wilson of racial discrimination did point to other considerations. They took into account, for example,the fact that Wilson is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (a group that valorizes the Confederacy) and that he was a leader of the effort he keep the Confederate flag waving atop the South Carolina State Capitol. For many onlookers, however, these additional considerations add little or nothing to the case against Wilson for racial discrimination. To them, the absence of any express reference to race on Wilson's part absolves him of the racism indictment.

President Obama distanced himself from the Dowd-Carter complaint and steadfastly minimized the role of race in the opposition to his program, his leadership, his administration. Responding to question's about Wilson's shout, Obama said that he appreciated that the Representative had "apologized quickly and without equivocation." Continuing, Obama remarked that "we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big, important issues that matter... without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people's motives.

Obama's response, eschewing any hint of racial accusation, was wholly in  keeping with his carefully-designed image as a dignified, careful, non-angry, non-resentful, statesman who happens to be black. (Not a black statesman. But a statesman who happens to be black. In other words a politician whose racial identity is incidental, not central, to his mission) Obama was keenly aware that he would have paid a stiff price for even mildly suggesting what is highly likely - that an affronted sense of racial privilege probably played some part in Wilson's rude display of temper. 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.

Obama has had to work hard to convince white onlookers that he harbors no racial resentment, loves America, and that his first and unalterable allegiance is to the nation as a whole as opposed merely to Black America. That is one reason why the word reparations never leaves Obama's mouth. He seeks to stay clear of any conduct that would enable enemies to portray him as a stereotypically "black" politician. Occasionally Obama discusses the history of racial injustice in this country. In his famous speech on race relations in the spring of 2008 in which he disavowed the teachings of his former pastor, Reverend  Jeremiah Wright, Jr., he declared that Americans

...need to remind [themselves] that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequities pass on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.... Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or black were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps to explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the controlled pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

Many commentators praised this speech for what they saw as its brave candor. But even the passage quoted above, Obama's most direct engagement with racial oppression, is suffused with a passive voice that obscures the participation of whites, past and present, in the making and perpetuation of racial subordination.Obama stated that blacks were prevented... from owning property, that loans were not granted to African Americans, and hat blacks were excluded from unions. But who have been the primary perpetrators and beneficiaries of those awful injustices? In Obama's chronicle whites are strangely absent. In Obama's narrative slavery and segregation happened without enslavers or segregationists. This rhetorical stance was not inadvertent. Obama had thought long and hard about the dilemma black politicians face when addressing whites about racial problems while simultaneously seeking to avoid white backlash.

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts sitting with a white senator listening to a black senator - John Doe - launch into  a lengthy peroration on why the elimination of a certain program was a case of blatant racism. After a few minutes, the white senator (who had a liberal voting record) turned to him and said You know what the problem is with John? Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white." Obama avoids issues, positions, gestures, and rhetoric that prompts whites to feel more white. He seeks to remove or greatly lessen any racial gap between him and white voters. To accomplish that end he evades racial disputes or obscures or mutes them.

The Presidency of Barack Obama has already fired the imaginations of millions internationally who now dare dream that, despite the complexion of their skin or the place of birth of their parents, they, too, can become the President or Prime Minister of a First World, predominantly white country. In the United States, his ascendancy has brought to the forefront an entire cadre of people of color - not only himself, not only the First Lady, Michelle Obama, not only the first African American Attorney General, Eric Holder, and not only the first Latino Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. He has also promoted to positions of authority dozens, if not hundreds, of people of color who will use their experience in the Obama Administration as platforms for higher office in subsequent administrations. Obama will continue to nudge the United States towards a course that is more egalitarian, more just, more environmentally-sensitive, more diplomatic, and more multi-lateral than the course that would be set by any other politician with a realistic chance of getting elected. Obama, however, is an exceedingly cautious politician who is disinclined to venture beyond what he perceives as the comfort zone of a majority of the voting population. Regarding no topic is his realistic caution more on display than the subject of race relations. Because that topic remains highly volatile and because his blackness makes him peculiarly vulnerable to racial demagoguery, Obama avoids grappling with the American race question, thus exemplifying its central but repressed and paradoxical place in the political culture of the United States.

Lyon, le 27 janvier 2010


Pour citer cette ressource :

Randall Kennedy, "Race Relations and the Presidency of Barack Obama", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2010. Consulté le 16/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/immigration-et-minorites/race-relations-and-the-presidency-of-barack-obama