U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama and the Politics of Race in the 21st Century: On Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "Fear of a Black President," Part II

The following post is the second part of a two part post from Carl Pedersen.  The first part was posted yesterday. 
Carl Pedersen is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Business and Culture at Copenhagen Business School. He is the author of Obama’s America (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009). His article on Obama and race, “The Obama Dilemma: Confronting Race in the 21st Century” is forthcoming in Michael Ledwidge et al., eds., Barack Obama and the Myth of a Post-Racial America (London: Routledge, 2013)

In what is perhaps his most scathing attack on Obama, Coates accuses him of using his bully pulpit not to address racism, but instead of employing a Booker T. Washington approach of “railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates does both Obama and Washington a disservice by castigating them as merely subservient conservative politicians. As Robert J. Norrell points out in his new biography, Up From History, the accommodation-protest binary (which Coates addresses by contrasting Bookerism with “another political tradition [that] casts its skepticism not simply upon black culture but upon the entire American project”) ignores the similarity between Washington’s challenges to white society and the protest tradition of the NAACP. Norrell argues that “Washington made public protests against Jim Crow on railroads, lynching, disfranchisement, disparities in education funding, segregated housing legislation, and discrimination by labor unions. He arranged and partly financed lawsuits challenging disfranchisement, jury discrimination, and peonage. And he campaigned constantly against the pernicious images of black projected in the media and popular culture. The NAACP would do those same things after him.”
Obama has taken a slightly different approach. He has voiced opposition to racial profiling, explicitly in the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and implicitly in the Trayvon Martin case and in response to a question at the second debate about Arizona anti-immigration laws. But his opposition to racial injustice is primarily conducted through what Thomas Sugrue in Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race has called a “hybrid approach” that focuses on not only African American attitudes and responsibility (as Coates would have it), but on, as Obama put it in his NAACP speech in 2009, “structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind.”
Obama’s seemingly race-neutral policies, such as stimulus dollars for public sector workers, grants to underperforming schools (without, however, mandating school desegregation), and, not least, the health care reform that will over time provide coverage for millions of uninsured Americans and increase health-related employment, have arguably benefited African Americans disproportionately.
Other examples of his approach are in a sense hidden in plain view, with policies that have received relatively little media attention. Even Coates acknowledges that the appointment of Shirley Sherrod as Georgia State Director of Rural Development at the USDA “represented the kind of unnoticed but significant changes that Obama’s election brought,” notwithstanding her rather ignominious dismissal by Obama following misunderstood remarks that were perceived as racist.
Sugrue argues that the “White House bully pulpit has never been sufficient, in its own right, to transform institutions. It has taken the coercive power of the law to make appreciable changes in African Americans’ status in American society. The record of Eric Holder’s Justice Department is a case in point. Early on in his tenure, Holder called the US “a nation of cowards” for failing to address the issue of race. Under George W. Bush, the Department of Justice increasingly neglected enforcement of civil rights, from housing and employment to voting rights. Holder has taken the opposite tact, filing briefs supporting affirmative action, and lawsuits requiring communities to construct affordable housing that would make it easier for minorities to seek employment in the suburbs. Holder called the attempt of Republican-controlled states to pass Voter ID laws that the Brennan Center for Justice estimate could disenfranchise up to 5 million mostly minority and younger voters a new form of poll tax. The Justice Department has brought suits against states for violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that subjects voting changes to administrative review.
In her book on how the War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration in the US, Michelle Alexander accuses Obama of “revving up the drug war through the same failed policies and programs that have systematically locked up young men of color into a permanent racial undercaste.” However, in 2010, the Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduces the disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the legislation should apply to those convicted before passage of the act but after sentencing.
Mitt Romney is making history in 2012. The headline of a recent piece in The New Republicsays it all: “Romney Has Historic Lead Among White Voters.” In 1944, the Supreme Court outlawed white primaries in the case of Smith vs. Allwright. In 2012, the GOP had had no need of judicial remedies to keep African Americans from voting in their primaries. The African American vote in the GOP primaries in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina was negligible. A poll released in August 2012 put Romney’s support among African Americans at 0%. A survey conducted by Associated Press in October found that racism against African Americans has increased since Obama was elected in 2008. With only slight hyperbole, the British journalist Gary Younge called the election of 2012 the most racially polarized in history.
The context is clear. Obama is the first African American president. The trajectory of demographics points in one direction—a majority minority nation by mid-century. The US Census for 2010 revealed that 4 states—Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas—have already become majority minority. The Republicans are appealing to an ever-shrinking base. Hence the talk of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and more civilized nations and racially-charged rhetoric about welfare and government handouts. White rage is informed by this larger context which makes it all the more potent.

Coates presents a strong case for how the US has not changed measurably in dealing with race. However, in his 1997 study of race relations, A Country of Strangers,  David Shipler concluded that “things are getting better and worse at the same time. Racially, America is torn by the crosscurrents of progress and decay. Practically every step forward is accompanied by a subtle erosion of the ground beneath.” The first African American president governs a nation still beset by racial prejudice but which has nonetheless made progress in race relations since the 1950s. Those who would turn back the demographic clock and reestablish white dominance are admittedly still powerful adversaries. But in spite of their efforts, Obama is, incrementally and often under the radar, changing the way we think about race.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Could the writer explain how Obama has truly addressed the “structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind”? The imprisonment of African Americans continues to climb, as does poverty and unemployment.

    The claim that stimulus dollars, grants for underperforming schools, and the health care reform are not necessarily linked to the structural inequalities Obama points out in his speech.

    Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

    • I explain how in the following paragraphs. For example, Kahlil Chaar-Pérez mentions the mass incarceration of African Americans. I talk about Michelle Alexander’s critique of Obama, but point out that the Fair Sentencing Act addresses the root cause of the disparity between convictions for crack and powder cocaine. I agree that Obama has not addressed poverty in any meaningful way, but the stimulus and health care reform packages constitute an attempt, however feeble, to ameliorate extreme inequality in the US.

    • Thanks for the reply. I agree, these are attempts to ameliorate extreme inequality, very limited attempts. That’s fairly obvious. What is missing is the connection with African Americans Let’s remember that these are, at the very least, the same measures Hillary Clinton would have approved herself. I guess I am not sure what you are trying to argue here, beyond summarizing and balancing the different takes.

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