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

  • Randall Kennedy
  • Pantheon Books
  • 336 pp.
  • September 7, 2011

What the last election says about the state of things today, and why it offers a ray of hope for the future.

Reviewed by Clyde Linsley

Presidents typically reach their popularity nadir toward the end of their first terms. President Obama’s polling numbers are not as low as for some of his predecessors (his most immediate predecessor, for example). Nevertheless, his approval ratings (while higher than those of both parties in Congress) seem lower (to me) than is justified by his performance so far.

In fact, he has been saddled with blame for the actions — some would say the mistakes — of preceding administrations and criticized for his failure to rectify problems that required decades to develop. Every president is subjected to a certain amount of this sort of thing, but Obama (it seems to me) has received far more than his share.

Ironically criticism of Obama has come both from the left and the right, and from blacks and whites. Far from failing to please everybody, Obama seems to have succeeded in disappointing nearly everybody. But in this wide-ranging, discursive book, author Randall Kennedy professes to see a ray of hope for the future in Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, although not so much from his policies as from his mere existence.

“Obama’s principal contribution to American race relations will derive not from any policies he initiates or decisions he makes but from the symbolic power of his example as a black man who became president. … The racial backlash … is eclipsed by the lesson being daily and pervasively absorbed … that a person of color can responsibly govern.”

Kennedy works mightily to play fair with both Obama and his detractors. The book ranges from the 2008 presidential campaign to the controversial nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He spends much of a chapter titled “Obama and White America” discussing Obama’s relationship with the nation’s racial majority, which has dogged his steps for years.

The well-publicized sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright seem to present a special problem for Kennedy. He clearly shares some of Wright’s criticisms of the United States (as do many whites, as do I), but in a wide-ranging chapter he concludes that the minister’s remarks were “marred by hyperbole, one-sidedness, and an irresponsible willingness to perpetuate erroneous folktales.”

But, he goes on, worse is “the complacent smugness from which arose the feverish anger that Wright provoked and that temporarily posed a threat to Obama’s candidacy.”

As I read Kennedy’s treatise, two incidents kept running through my mind.

The first occurred in 2006: My high school, the infamous Little Rock Central High School, celebrated 50 years of desegregation.

It was a big deal: An observance of a largely successful transition from a segregated environment to a system of racial integration. The celebration was carried on national television. Former President and Mrs. Clinton came, as did Clinton’s successor as governor, television talking-head Mike Huckabee, present and former students, and the present governor. Most important, all members of the original Little Rock Nine — the students who desegregated the school in 1956 — were present, deservedly in positions of honor.

From all outward appearances, desegregation in Little Rock has been an unmitigated success. The school has gone from all-white, when I began classes there, to roughly 50 percent black today. Most of the fears that pervaded local society at the outset of the experience seem to have been avoided (granted, after a disastrous beginning). Racial tensions seem to have eased. Perhaps more important: the school has lost little, if any, of its academic status. Contrary to popular belief, Central (isn’t it in Arkansas?) has always been ranked among the top public high schools in the nation. It remains so today.

But then in the summer of 2008, at a farmers’ market near my current home in Northern Virginia, I overheard a (white) shopper complaining to a (white) produce vendor about the racial imbalance of her daughter’s high school. The vendor nodded knowingly. “You can dress them up, but they’re still just a step or two out of the jungle,” she said.

She saw no need to specify who “they” were. So much for the post-racial society.

The Persistence of the Color Line doesn’t attempt to explain — much less justify — the continued existence of skin color as a divisive force in American society, but Kennedy has written a remarkably dispassionate survey of the state of things today. Considering the emotional response that matters of race still evoke, this is a useful, even invaluable, contribution to the discussion.

Clyde Linsley, a native of Little Rock, is the author of four mystery novels. Death of a Mill Girl was recently re-released through the Author’s Guild Back in Print program.

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